The digital CO2 footprint

The digital CO2 footprint
17 Nov 2020

When we talk about reducing our carbon footprint, the first things most people think of are aeroplanes, the meat industry and cars. However, these are just a few of the factors resulting in increased CO2 emissions. Entirely underestimated are the CO2 emissions arising from every Google query, every film we stream and every click. In Germany, it’s estimated that 0.85 tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted per person, just from the use of digital technologies. That doesn’t mean digitalisation in itself is a bad thing – Smart technologies can also help reduce our digital carbon footprint.

Enormous quantities of data are generated every minute

The digital world has been permanently changed by the corona pandemic in 2020. Compared to last year – whether working from home, streaming at home or taking part in Zoom workshops – everyday life has increasingly moved online. This means more data is generated each minute than in previous years.

One Minute on the internet

Source: Visual capitalist

The number of internet users has grown considerably since 2018. According to one estimation, 3.9 billion people used the internet in 2018. In 2020 this grew to 4.57 billion – that’s 58 per cent of the global population. And this figure is set to grow over the next few years. With this in mind, a thoughtful and efficient approach to using resources is becoming ever more important.

CO2 emissions from search engine queries

Searching for something on the internet has become one of the simplest activities in everyday life. Search engines deliver results within seconds. As already featured in our article Green Computing: Tips on Minimising Environmental Impact in Everyday Use, data centres consume enormous amounts of power. In 2016 the company consumed 5.7 terawatt hours. From 2015 to 2016 alone, Google’s energy consumption increased by 20 per cent. We can assume growth will be similar in the years to come too.

Thousands of servers are needed to deliver the search results quickly. Querying a search engine consumes quite a lot of energy. According to estimates, one query consumes 0.3 watt hours of electricity – not much energy in itself, but every minute around 3.8 million search queries are made to Google alone.

However, to reduce its impact on the environment, Google itself has committed to using renewable sources to cover 100 per cent of its electricity requirement. In Google’s 2018 sustainability report, the company stated it has already been possible to reduce the carbon intensity per unit of revenue by 87 per cent.

Music and video streaming

Streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify etc. consume enormous quantities of energy. Most users are not even aware of how much CO2 is emitted by their use of streaming services. Video content currently accounts for around 80 per cent of data traffic in telecommunication networks.

In order for the videos to be transmitted to our screens, the data must be stored on servers. Every year, these servers consume around 55 terawatt hours for transmitting videos. The data centres must be cooled to a temperature of 25 °C so they don’t overheat. A third of the energy is used just to cool the servers.

The most environmentally-friendly way to stream is via the fibre-optic network – with carbon dioxide emissions of 2 g per hour. In contrast, 5G mobile networks emit 5 g of carbon dioxide per hour, and 4G mobile networks emit around 13 g of carbon dioxide per hour.

How can we reduce our digital carbon footprint through digitalisation?

Digitalisation affects almost every aspect of our everyday lives. It opens up new potential and can even be helpful in protecting the environment. For example, information can be better-incorporated in operational processes and promote sustainable development.

Here are a few examples of the sustainable use of digital technologies:

  • The sharing economy: Whether car sharing systems, food sharing services or the exchange or sale of textiles – it’s human nature to exchange or share possessions or services. Digitalisation has significantly simplified this process. Digital networking enables resources to be offered quickly and easily to other people. Here, the sharing economy promotes more conscious and socially-aware consumption of available resources, and counteracts the “throwaway mentality”.
  • The Smart home: Smart living is becoming increasingly popular, both for electricity and heating consumption. The use of Smart applications and equipment enables us, for example, to monitor our electricity and heating costs and to efficiently regulate our consumption.
  • CO2 tracking: These apps can help consumers make environmentally-friendly decisions and to live in a way that better conserves resources. One good example is the “rvolt” app. This allows users to monitor their carbon dioxide consumption and collect points for sustainable behaviour. In this way, the app promotes users’ awareness about their own behaviour and the emissions they are responsible for.
  • 3D printing: Production of customised products can be made more sustainable by using 3D printers. Objects can be precisely adapted to the needs of the consumer – considerably reducing material waste. Many spare parts can be manufactured on demand, meaning there are no costs or CO2 emissions for storage and transport.
  • Green search engines: The simplest way to save electricity is by entering known websites directly. However, green search engines, for example Ecosia, are an alternative to conventional search engines. This search engine is CO2-neutral, and 80 per cent of its profits are used for reforestation.

Digitalisation has changed our society and makes everyday life easier in many areas. But to ensure digitalisation doesn’t have a negative impact on our environment, it is important that we rethink the way we do things. We must drive sustainable development forward.


Lisa Neulichedl