Q. Dear Umbra,
Cloud computing is a major emissions producer. Why is no one arguing for the dismantling of the Internet?
— Not Everyone’s Online
A. Dear NEO,
I’d venture to say that many, many people have a very love-hate relationship with the internet. It’s a source of connection, but also one of stress. It facilitates convenience, but at the same time seems to suck all manner of time and energy out of the day in an anxiety-inducing spiral. It has an appetite for massive amounts of energy, but it simultaneously has all the makings of a powerful, intangible force to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Let’s start with some of the internet’s climate-specific pros and cons. On the plus side, the creation of “remote work” has eliminated a lot of commute-related emissions, which make up a significant part of the average person’s carbon footprint. There’s also the overall convenience factor. A lot of tasks are so much easier online — bank deposits, grocery shopping, even paying the electric bill — saving any number of car trips in favor of more efficient delivery systems. And then there’s the fact that the World Wide Web’s wild and crazy information highway means that anyone with a Wi-fi signal can learn about climate change, from the latest U.N. environmental report to the daily atmospheric carbon level.
But, as you suggest, all that good might not be enough to offset the internet’s current climate drawbacks. A 2020 review of teleworking studies found the net energy benefit of remote work to be rather small when weighed against the environmental impact of all the infrastructure and energy that goes into data centers — the millions of servers that must be built, powered, and cooled to enable your Google searches, Zoom calls, and Instagram posts. The “cloud,” in fact, is actually just a system of data centers sprinkled all over the world that hold digital assets so you don’t have to keep them on your hard drive. One estimate of all that energy usage adds up to about 73 billion kWh, still just 2 percent of the total U.S. power demand in 2020.
The energy used by the internet is hardly its only potential climate cost. From a social standpoint, the internet’s quick connections may have given us a warped sense of time and space, normalizing (for those of a certain privileged demographic) certain forms of very carbon-intensive travel — weekend flights to Mexico from Pittsburgh for a BFF getaway, international business trips for a 30-minute speaking engagement. Online shopping is its own particular carbon conundrum: The fact that so many objects are incredibly easy to buy has given way to the rise of unconscious consumption, an undeniable propagator of polluting industries. And that’s not even getting into influencer culture, an entire industry built around filtered 21-year-olds selling you supplement subscriptions you have never and will never need.
And as for the internet’s wealth of information? Well, the same search engines that can find you the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also make it perilously easy to find yahoos claiming that global warming is an invention of the government. And that’s to say nothing of the nightmarish online news cycle or the dark web-fueled rise of hate groups and conspiracy theories.
Well, yikes. Things are not looking so good in the “reasons we should keep the internet” category. But a lot of this calculation has to do with the way the internet is currently used and powered. Back to the whole cloud computing example: The carbon impact of a giant army of servers is closely tied to the source of the electricity itself; it could remain the “largest coal-powered machine on the planet,” as The New Republic rather doomily deemed it in 2019, or it could be powered by cleaner solar, wind, or nuclear power.
Despite the explosive growth of cloud computing and proliferation of server farms, various technological advances are converging to keep total energy usage fairly stable. In 2016, an analysis commissioned by the Department of Energy found that cloud computing’s energy needs were far less than had been estimated by previous growth projections because server technology had become more efficient. For example, we’re benefiting from the advent of something called “hyperscale” server farms, which pile a ton of bare-bones servers together. By cutting out unnecessary, energy-sucking functions from the hardware, each unit requires a smaller amount of energy. One Google data center is even experimenting with using its server farm as a battery that can discharge into the electric grid around it, acting as a source of community energy.
All that said: The internet is only expected to grow more, and to grow faster. It’s hard to predict how any efficiency advances can keep up with it.
But at the risk of sounding naively optimistic, I’ll say this for the internet age: Communication is a billion times easier than it was 100 years ago. Young people in particular, aka those who stand to lose the most from a warmer atmosphere, have a platform to organize around climate change on a larger scale than they would have in, like, 1901. There’s even been evidence of what some people are calling a “Greta Thunberg effect,” in which people who have been exposed to her passionate pro-planet messages online are more likely to take action on climate change.
You can wring your hands and say, “But maybe all the problems those young people have to undo would never have come about if the internet had never existed!” Sure, that is an interesting thought experiment, and there is a whole school of climate activists who long to return to a very old-school agrarian society in the name of shrinking carbon footprints. But let’s be real: The horse has long since bolted from that proverbial stable. The internet and its comforts are simply too embedded into everything that we do; once you have experienced the joys of online curry delivery, you will probably not be eager to go out and slaughter a goat for dinner. Even if extremists were to destroy every server farm in the world in the name of dismantling the internet, there would almost certainly be a major movement to bring it back as fast as possible.
So rather than spend your energy trying to dismantle the Internet altogether — and probably making a lot of people really mad at you — push for ways to change for the better. We can have an internet that is both powered by greener energy and doesn’t perpetuate misinformation, hateful rhetoric, and apathy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we deserve it.