Environmental Impact: 4 Surprising Ways the Internet Affects the Environment

Photo: Evgeny Nelmin / Unsplash

With the rise of the digital era came a push to go paperless and move everything online. One of the subtler side-effects of this ostensibly positive move was the fact that we all just assumed that digital = good for the planet. 

While a virtual office rental is still a great move for the environment if it means you no longer have to commute to an office, there are some surprising ways in which your online activity can contribute to global pollution. Let’s explore this in greater detail.

1. Tiny actions that add up

While each email you send and document you save in the cloud isn’t contributing a whole lot to carbon emissions, these things add up, particularly when you consider that you’re just one of the billions of internet users worldwide. We’ve already learned this lesson with littering – your little bit of trash may not ruin a swimming hole, but if everyone follows suit, the place will soon be a dump.

While it’s difficult to accurately assess the carbon footprint of the internet as a whole, let alone individual users, one 2009 study estimated that the average person was responsible for around 179 lbs of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere per year. 

2. Data centers powered by fossil fuels

The term “cloud” is quite misleading. While we obviously don’t believe that all our cloud-based data is genuinely stored in the atmosphere, the terminology does create a neat little linguistic sleight of hand. It neatly draws our attention away from the fact that our data is, in fact, stored in massive data centers and distributed networks. 

Thankfully, in many parts of the world, these data centers are powered by renewable energy. So, while data storage has grown substantially over the last ten years, the energy consumption of many data centers has either reduced or flat-lined. The problem is that many parts of the world are still operating on fossil fuels. This makes it important to review the environmental claims and policies of any cloud service you consider using. 

3. Eco-friendly work hubs

Of course, it’s not all bad! There are plenty of ways our computer usage can have a positive impact on the environment, and coworking spaces are an excellent example. Serviced offices have been around for some time, but the latest managed office suites are stepping up their game, creating sustainable spaces powered by renewable energy. Here, companies and individual workers can carve out a space for themselves in a building designed to help them work efficiently without harming the environment. 

4. Online shopping issues

Some online activities will be problematic for the environment, even if you’re doing them from the comfort of a sustainable serviced office. Online shopping is one such activity. Online purchases generally come with an extra layer of packaging (sometimes several). Then there are the emissions produced by the transportation of products to consumers, not to mention the extra emissions incurred by missed deliveries. 

If you don’t end up liking the product you receive, throwing it away adds to the landfill, while returning it adds another round of emissions to the mix. Not only that but many companies simply dispose of returned items anyway.  

Keep these factors in mind the next time you flick through all those unnecessary documents in your cloud storage or sign up for an email newsletter you know you won’t read. All that data has to be stored somewhere, and its storage comes at a price.