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Internet and CO2 emissions: How to surf more climate


The Internet has long since become an energy guzzler. With simple steps, however, you can significantly reduce your emissions while surfing. Nevertheless, the problem cannot be solved on an individual level.

Dear reader,

Digital has a green image for most people, and when it comes to greenhouse gases, many people think more of airplanes than smartphones.

But in order for you to be able to chat online, stream a video or even read this newsletter, data centers have to be cooled, data sent via radio towers and undersea cables and finally your smartphone, laptop or tablet has to be operated.

An hour of video streaming causes on average as much CO₂ emissions as driving around 1.8 kilometers with an average combustion engine.

Of course, digitization makes many things more efficient and thus also saves CO₂, but at the same time the network also has a significant CO₂ footprint.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is dealing with the problem for the first time and in its current report warns of the "increasing demand for energy": The entire network infrastructure accounts for between six and twelve percent of global electricity demand, which is at least as much as the consumption of the whole of India.

According to surveys, the greenhouse gas emissions of the Internet are between 1.8 and 3.2 percent.

In Ireland, an important Internet hub, the authorities are even warning of blackouts if the data centers in the country continue to be expanded.

The energy authority for regenerative energies already sees a threat to the country's climate goals in the growth of server halls.

In addition, most electricity in Ireland does not come from wind energy but from gas-fired power plants.

However, users can take a few simple measures to help ensure that they are more climate-friendly online when streaming, chatting or reading the news:

  • Probably the most important measure on an individual level has nothing to do directly with the Internet or your own gadgets: Get a green electricity contract for your home to run your devices entirely with renewable energy.

  • If you call up data via your landline connection instead of the mobile network, you not only save your mobile data volume, but also save electricity and thus generally reduce your emissions.

    According to a study commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency, data transmission via the relatively low-emission 5G also causes more CO₂ emissions than transmission via a DSL connection.

    Transmissions via fiber optics perform best.

  • Download your favorite songs instead of streaming them over and over again: By downloading music you listen to over and over again to your phone (ideally at home), you avoid sending the same data down the line over and over again.

  • Don't always stream in HD: If you watch videos in SD instead of HD, i.e. in a lower but often sufficient resolution, you can save an average of 86 percent CO₂ according to a study.

  • Just go into the video conference without a picture: If you only connect to the next video call via audio, you can save around 96 percent CO₂ according to the same survey.

  • Use durable, efficient hardware that is as easy to repair as possible: The emissions from the manufacture of gadgets and end devices are a factor that is often underestimated in the overall climate balance.

    If you use more durable devices, you can significantly improve your digital CO₂ balance.

    The tech companies still don't make repairs that easy, but there are ways and means, as my colleague Matthias Kremp reported two years ago.

Facebook and TikTok have different carbon footprints

The services you use online also play a role.

According to a study by the analysis company Greenspector from 2021, scrolling the TikTok feed causes three times as many CO₂-equivalent emissions as the Facebook feed.

Incidentally, scrolling through the timeline usually causes more emissions than posting something yourself, as the analysts calculated using Instagram as an example.

TikTok is the only major social media company not to publish a climate transparency report.

Other companies provide comprehensive information in such reports about how much green electricity they use and how they save emissions.

From TikTok circles it is said that the company, which was founded ten years ago, has not been in business as long as other social networks.

Why the problem cannot be solved on an individual level

In current debates on climate protection, it is repeatedly said that everyone could make a contribution.

Eating less meat, riding a bike more, you know that. Of course that is right and also helpful in combating the climate crisis.

At the same time, however, this obscures the fact that the decisive levers for the necessary large-scale change lie in the hands of politics and business.

In hardly any other area can this be shown so clearly as in the case of the Internet.

For the climate balance of the Internet, much more changes in one fell swoop if a data center is operated entirely with green electricity, saves energy at the same time and maybe even warms a few adjacent houses with its waste heat than if you post three fewer food photos on Instagram.

A look at the large Silicon Valley corporations clearly shows one of the major difficulties, because most of the large tech corporations have committed themselves to ambitious climate protection goals:

  • Apple, for example, wants to make all of its computers and smartphones completely CO₂-neutral by 2030

  • Amazon wants to be CO₂-neutral by 2040 and has been describing itself as the largest buyer of renewable energies for two years

  • Microsoft, on the other hand, wants to save even more carbon dioxide than it emits from 2030, and by 2050 the US company wants to have offset all the CO₂ emissions since it was founded in 1975.

When oil drilling becomes more efficient thanks to cloud computing

Nevertheless, the products of these companies can indirectly have a negative impact on the climate.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these so-called rebound effects are the biggest unknown and the biggest problem in the climate impacts of digitization.

Amazon, for example, has just had to admit that it emitted 18 percent more climate-damaging gases in 2021 than in the previous year due to the corona-related boom in online shopping.

Microsoft, in turn, faced criticism from its own ranks in 2019 because the company, with its artificial intelligence and cloud technology, is helping the oil multinational Exxon Mobile to extract up to 50,000 barrels of oil more per day than before from an oil field in south Texas by 2025 pick up.

The actually clean digital technology helps to plan boreholes more efficiently and to exploit fossil energy that might otherwise have remained in the ground.

In an interview with my colleague Marcel Rosenbach, Tilman Santarius, who heads the Sustainable Digitization department at the TU Berlin, criticizes the fact that the flat rates of many providers and the convenient, unlimited availability of content from streaming services are causing more and more consumption - this weighs in on the efficiency gains through digitization more than up.

"So far, despite all the promises and commitments made by the tech companies, the consumption of resources has continued to grow," he says.

For the current issue of SPIEGEL, Marcel, Patrick Beuth and I have extensively researched the carbon footprint of the internet.

For the first time, the federal government also wants to tackle the issue, for example with efficiency specifications for data centers and climate-friendly coolants.

Scientist Santarius finds the attempt at regulation fundamentally correct, but he knows that it will not be enough.

"Energy costs are a big factor for data centers," he says.

“If these now become significantly more efficient, then their operation will become cheaper, and that will fuel the demand for ever larger amounts of data.

A vicious circle that can only be broken through absolute consumption standards and the greatest possible data economy.«

Our current Netzwelt reading tips for

  • »Is TikTok or Facebook worse for the climate?« (10 questions)

    If you want to find out more about the topic of this newsletter issue, you can test your knowledge in this quiz.

  • »Why the crypto crash lets gamers breathe easy« (four minutes of reading)

    The fall in the price of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies leads to a side effect on the graphics card market, which should please fans of video games in particular.

  • "This is how games like "Fortnite" bring children into contact with strangers" (nine minutes of reading)

    Many media reports that 14-year-old Ayleen, who was found dead, is said to have met her later alleged murderer in the video game "Fortnite".

    My colleague Markus Böhm shows that the connection has not yet been proven for the police - and gives tips on which protective measures can still be useful in the popular online game.

External links: Three tips from other media

  • The Disastrous Record of Celebrity Crypto Endorsements (English, four-minute read)

    Crypto companies have been particularly fond of using celebrity endorsements to promote their pseudo-currencies, investment platforms, or other services.

    Bloomberg has compiled the status of the testimonials' recommendations: The crypto artworks promoted by ex-heavyweight world champion Mike Tyson have lost 95 percent in value a year after publication, and billionaire Mark Cuban's "tokens" even lost 99 percent.

  • »Chronotrains« (English, map)

    Anyone who has rediscovered rail travel with the 9-euro ticket can use this map as a suggestion: every click on it shows where the train can take you in five hours' travel time.

    Why not just go to Paris for a weekend or to the Belgian coast?

  • GPSJam (English, map)

    John Wiseman programmed a map of a completely different kind: He uses radio signals from commercial aircraft to detect noticeable deterioration in the GPS satellite positioning system.

    Military jamming systems that are intended to prevent precise targeting can be the reason for this interference.

Have a good week!

Max Hoppenstedt

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2022-08-03

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