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The environmental impact of our digital practices

19.08.2015

As 40% of the world’s population now has access to the Internet and this figure is estimated to increase to 90% in the next 20 years , several recent studies have examined the environmental impact of our digital practices. Review of the key data on the subject.

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Credit : iStock / s-c-s

Forests are preserved thanks to a reduction in the use of paper, less petrol is used thanks to online shopping reducing travel requirements, etc… the benefits for the environment resulting from the role of the Internet in our current lifestyle seem evident. However, these new technologies have an impact that is often ignored.

According to the GreenIT website, on a world-wide level, and taking into account both the manufacture of equipment and its use, the Internet’s carbon footprint corresponds to 1,037 TWh of electricity – the equivalent of 140 million French people over a year – and 608 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. As for water resources, one person’s annual Internet usage corresponds to the use of 3,000 litres of water and 200 kg of greenhouse gases.
In a 2014 study, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) estimated that sending a 1MB email to a single recipient is the equivalent of emitting 19 g of CO2, and adding attachments or additional recipients increases the impact on the climate. A significant impact given that increasingly more emails are being sent on a global level. As such, according to ADEME, sending 33 1MB emails to two recipients each day per person would generate 180 kg of CO2 annually, which is the equivalent of driving more than 1000 km in a car. As for an Internet search, it is the equivalent to emitting 10 g of CO2 .

This impact is partly explained by the energy consumption required to operate computers and data centres, and partly by the raw materials used in their production. According to GreenIT, using such equipment consumes more energy and water than its manufacture does. The volume of greenhouse gas emissions, however, is comparable for both manufacture (48%) and use (52%).

In view of these observations, if everyone takes ownership of their daily activities it may have a positive impact. On an individual level, Internet users can reduce their environmental impact, for example by limiting the number of email recipients. They may also choose to acquire eco-designed products, to use a laptop rather than a desktop computer (an energy saving estimated to be between 50% and 80%) or even to keep their equipment for longer. As such, extending the service life of a computer by three years will avoid the emission of the equivalent of 2.3 kg of CO2 per year.
In terms of networks, the centralisation of data storage centres and the supply of servers with renewable energies are among the suggested avenues for improvement.





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