Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

Some have lauded the transition to the digital world, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, for lowering emissions and being a force of environmental good — but that’s not the whole story, according to a study by researchers from Yale, Purdue University and MIT.

In direct response to the digital shift last spring, the researchers set out to pin down the true environmental impact of the internet and found that the energy consumption of internet data centers is significant and unacknowledged. In their paper, the researchers call on internet users to take steps such as turning off one’s video during virtual meetings and streaming in lower quality, which the paper approximates would cause huge reductions in environmental cost. They also call on service providers and policymakers to ensure the transparency of the environmental impacts of internet processing, so that consumers can factor environmental concerns into their decisions, according to Renee Obringerm, an author of the study who was at Purdue University when the research was conducted and is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Maryland.

“A lot of us are excited and think that by not driving to meetings, by doing things over the internet, by not flying to conferences, we can reduce our emissions and do good for the planet,” Kaveh Madani, another author of the study and a senior fellow at Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, said. “But are there other things that we must worry about? If so, then it’s better to discover those before it’s too late, before we shape our new lifestyle and new digital norms.”

According to the paper, the annual carbon footprint of the internet on a global scale, not including mobile data, is roughly equal to the annual carbon footprint of all activities in Sweden and Finland combined. The annual water footprint of the internet — which comes from hydroelectricity used to power activities such as data processing — is approximately equivalent to filling one million Olympic swimming pools, and its annual land footprint is about 3400 square kilometers, or Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and New York City combined. The latter measurement consists of the land that houses the data processing and transmitting centers themselves as well as other spaces used to power internet-related activities, including fields containing solar panels.

The researchers found that if 70 million Netflix subscribers worldwide were to stream in lower quality, it would eliminate 3.5 million tons of carbon emissions each month, the equivalent of 6 percent of the U.S.’s total monthly coal consumption. According to Obringer, by switching from 4k quality to standard definition on Netflix, it is possible to reduce a personal footprint, including carbon, water and land, by 84 percent.

“While that is dependent on your own preferences and how often you were to be streaming, if a lot of people were to do that somewhat small action, it would actually be a significant reduction in our global footprint,” Obringer said. People can use the carbon footprint calculator by carbon click if they want to be proactive in reducing their personal footprint.

One of the main reasons the researchers pursued this study was to push for transparency from internet service providers, according to Obringer. She said that data is sparse when it comes to the environmental footprints of data centers around the world.

In their efforts, the researchers were unable to account for mobile internet data, because the information is not available. But according to Madani, they expect the mobile data network to show greater footprints because it is more energy-intensive.

To complicate matters, data centers are often not located in the same country for which they provide internet service: the paper mentions that this may have environmental justice implications. Internet use in one country may contribute to resource shortages and increase carbon emissions in another, and according to Madani, this is important information to collect in the future.

“We worked with the best data available out there to come up with our best estimates, but there is certainly a level of uncertainty associated with our estimates and certainly further research is necessary to better quantify these uncertainties,” Roshanak Nateghi, an author of the paper and assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University, said. 

According to Nateghi, most media coverage of the study has focused on suggesting that people turn off their video during virtual meetings, although she said that was not the message the research team was trying to convey. While individual actions are important, the researchers think policy makers and service providers should work towards a sustainable digital world.

Madani believes that service providers have a responsibility to reduce their environmental impact and to provide information to their consumers about the resources required to process and transmit data through their service. Then, consumers can make conscious decisions in choosing their service provider to minimize environmental harm and companies would in turn be encouraged to reduce their footprint in order to attract customers.

Different countries rely more heavily on different energy sources, which is why the researchers made the decision to include water footprint and land footprint as well as carbon footprint in their study, Nateghi said. For example, Brazil has a very low carbon footprint but a very high water footprint because 70 percent of their power comes from hydroelectricity, while a country like South Africa has a very high carbon footprint due to their reliance on fossil fuels, according to Obringer. To her, these were the study’s most interesting findings.

In research and the media, it is common to focus on carbon footprints to measure environmental impact, but by looking at water and land as well, it is possible to capture a more accurate picture of environmental cost, according to Nateghi. The costs of producing hydroelectricity, for example, are ignored in carbon emission data.

“It illustrates the need to assess … beyond the carbon footprint and look at these different areas and take a more holistic approach to sustainability,” Obringer said.

Recently, the industry of data processing and transmitting has made significant increases in energy efficiency, according to the paper. For instance, the water footprint per gigabyte of data has decreased by 150 percent in the past five years. 

According to Madani, it is possible to take advantage of the digital sector to reduce our footprint, as we have seen with a reduction in carbon emissions due to remote work, but that requires an understanding of the environmental costs of both sides. Nateghi said that the research team openly shared their data with the public so that future research can be done in this field.

“We really hope that this is just the beginning,” Nateghi said.

Home internet use has increased 15 to 40 percent worldwide due to stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, according to the study.

Emilia Oliva | emilia.oliva@yale.edu