Is the Internet Bad for the Environment?

By: Bikram Bains

One unavoidable aspect of our lives today is the internet. Recent studies have shown that streaming and cloud services have a large carbon footprint, with some studies claiming that watching 30 minutes of Netflix is equivalent to driving 4 miles!  


In 2019, a French think tank called the Shift Project wrote a report on the carbon emissions involved with online streaming. Their findings resulted in extremely troubling numbers that others think are inflated. Another peer-reviewed study said that streaming emitted 0.42 kg of CO2 an hour, while Shift Project claimed that it emitted 3.2 kg. As it turns out, 30 minutes of Netflix does not actually emit the same amount of carbon as driving 4 miles. Instead, it is closer to driving 100 meters.


Despite the somewhat comforting figures presented by other studies, they do not exonerate all streaming. Companies like Spotify and Apple Music have been reluctant to disclose their carbon emissions. To their credit, Spotify has released sustainability reports starting in 2017. However, that statement is very misleading. According to University of Oslo professor, Kyle Devine: “(When companies say they are) 100 percent carbon neutral...That doesn’t mean that Google is running on completely renewable energy or that their CO2 emissions are any lower...What they’re doing is purchasing or investing in renewable energy at a rate that equals or matches the amount of energy that they're using anyway.”


The debate over whether streaming and other internet services are bad for the environment centers around alternatives. For example, gaming services that use the cloud use 17% more energy than those that stream. In this case, even though streaming may use a large amount of electricity, it is a better alternative to cloud services. In today’s situation, there are no alternatives to the internet. It is now deemed a utility necessary for survival, on an equal level with water or heating, meaning the carbon emissions resulting from internet use are as necessary as those from these aforementioned utilities. Since there are no alternatives, labeling the internet as bad for the environment does not seem actionable in this case. However, this does not mean that we can’t decrease our carbon emissions. 


In the Shift Project’s study, they took into account the electricity usage of the data centers, appliances, and other devices associated with streaming. While their numbers were wrong, they were on to something. Other studies have shown that we use more electricity when we are connected to data rather than wifi, and when we use a mobile device rather than watching television. A large amount of the electricity used in a house comes from leaving the wifi router on for 24 hours. Decreasing the time the router is on by 10 hours can save 72.27 pounds of carbon, or the equivalent of driving 80 miles! In addition to what we can do at home, there's so much more that can be accomplished by companies. Big tech companies can take steps to reduce their emissions, and it is up to us as consumers to hold them accountable. While there is no alternative for the internet, there is no alternative for Earth either.