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Digital does not mean Green: Internet’s carbon footprint

27th May 2022
Digital does not mean Green: Internet’s carbon footprint

The Dutch artist Thijs Biersteker built a device that shows the carbon emissions of electronic devices in real-time. Three monitors are hooked up to a computer, which uses an algorithm to calculate how much carbon is emitted by each monitor’s activity (Zoom, Netflix, and Spotify), and then carbon dioxide is emitted into a spherical terrarium connected to the devices.

The increase in carbon causes the plants to wilt, showing the damage caused by excess greenhouse gas emissions in real-time. A video showcasing the installation states, “Every 1 MB creates 20g of CO2.”

The internet emits 100 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas annually, or 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, according to a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group.

While digitalization is viewed as a green alternative to paper trails, the computer servers that run the internet are often powered by fossil fuels and emit as much CO2 as air travel. Nonfungible tokens (NFTs), social media, and gaming account for a large portion of the web’s energy use.


NFTs & Cryptocurrency

Last year, the issue of digital emissions was brought to the fore after Beeple sold a digital art piece as an NFT for $69 million. NFTs are financial securities that essentially serve as certificates of authenticity for internet data. They are run on the Ethereum blockchain, and each transaction emits 135 kg of carbon dioxide.

Last year, authorities in Inner Mongolia banned the mining of cryptocurrency to reduce energy consumption. The region’s low electricity costs had attracted crypto miners, but the crackdown came after it failed to meet energy reduction targets.

In response to environmental concerns surrounding NFTs, developers have signed an anti-NFT pledge organised by Climate Replay, a group empowering game developers, to be more sustainable.

The pledge does not call for an outright ban on the use of NFTs, but encourages uptake that does not cause significant environmental damage and considers social equity. The pledge has gained traction, getting signatures from some of Minecraft’s game designers and artists.


Social Media

Last year, Greenspector conducted a study on the environmental impact of the top 10 social media networks. The study revealed that, per minute of use, TikTok had the greatest carbon impact, followed by Reddit, Pinterest, and Instagram.

YouTube had the lowest rank, though, because people spend more time on the site; its overall impact is high. TikTok remained at the top of the list for energy consumption, followed by Facebook and Snapchat.

TikTok has a large digital footprint because the site primarily streams video files, which use more data than audio or image files. According to Vlad Coroamă, Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Pervasive Computing at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich, video streaming now accounts for 75 per cent of global digital traffic.

Social media’s energy consumption is ubiquitous and will be the hardest to reduce, though academics and businesses are trying.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark rolled out an algorithm to reduce the resource consumption of computer servers by streamlining computing workflows between those that get overloaded and those with unused capacity by balancing client distribution. Google is seeking to run its data centres on renewable energy, and Microsoft has experimented with underwater servers.


In 2020, an energy analyst for Sony published his doctoral dissertation on the climate implications of gaming. They analysed which methods of use on PlayStation 4 models had the greatest carbon emissions, estimates included emissions for manufacture, transport, and power consumption over a console’s lifetime. The study found that overall, emissions were greatest from Cloud [online stream] gaming rather than from disc or download methods, though results remain dependent on a gamer’s behaviour.

Over the years, gaming consoles have become more energy-efficient, but the preference for internet play and the need to regularly download large files add to the industry’s carbon footprint.
The internet is the greatest innovation of the last century, and over 60 per cent of the global population now has access to it. Emailing rather than sending letters may save trees, but it still emits carbon into the atmosphere.

People can reduce their digital carbon footprint by downloading instead of streaming videos, playing songs as audio rather than video files, using Wi-Fi instead of data, using devices longer before upgrading, and emptying email inboxes. Structural changes to the internet’s server infrastructure are on the horizon, but consumers can be more cognizant of their internet habits in the interim.

(Photo credit:

Sarah Sakeena Marshall,
Korea Economic Institute Intern, American University’s School of International Service,
The Muslim News Environmental Columnist

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