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Internet Emissions: 5 Ways Your Online Activity Can Create Real-World Pollution

When you lodge your tax return online, allow junk mail to pile up in your inbox, or share a meme with a friend, you likely don’t connect that activity to pollution or environmental harm. Indeed, the push to go paperless and embrace the digital world has largely been driven by eco-friendly talking points. However, the truth is that the internet has a surprisingly significant impact on the environment. 

To illustrate this point, here are five ways your online activity can create real-world pollution: 

1. Getting set up in the first place

To access the internet, you need to have a device, and to get that device, you connect yourself to a long chain of production, from the minerals and components that go into it to the mining practices, manufacturing equipment, transportation, and other logistics and infrastructure. From purifying silicone to manufacturing microchips, every step of this process takes a lot of energy, water, and other resources. Indeed, the best estimates are that, in the lifecycle of a computer, a third of its energy is accounted for by production, not use. 

2. Treating tech like fashion trends

Tech producers want nothing more than for us to treat our smartphones and laptops like fast fashion. However, if you upgrade to the latest model each year, you’re adding more demand to the energy-intensive process described in point one. With one-third of a device’s energy consumption accounted for by the production process, simply holding onto your tech for as many years as you can is a great way to do your part to protect the environment. 

3. Adding your drop to the ocean

While the amount of energy it takes to send a single meme is tiny and impossible to accurately calculate, we do know that the internet, the infrastructure and systems that support it, and the gadgets we use to access it account for around 3.7% of yearly greenhouse emissions. To put that in perspective, this figure is roughly equivalent to the emissions produced by the global airline industry. 

Basically, every annoying political meme a friend sends you adds weight to the emissions. That weight may be small, but with roughly 5 billion other internet users pitching in, the impact becomes significant. 

4. Storing unnecessary data

When you hear about the cloud, it’s easy to assume that your data is now being stored in some kind of floating ether, disconnected from the hard drives of the past. However, the truth is that anything you store online is still being housed somewhere  – either in distributed servers or centralized data centers. And these servers and data centers require electricity to run. 

Thankfully, many data centers around the world are shifting to renewable energy sources. So, despite massive growth in the number of internet users each year, the internet’s overall energy consumption has remained relatively steady. Still, you can do your part to lessen the load by deleting any unnecessary data. 

5. Streaming movies and TV shows

Entertainment streaming has become one of the biggest consumers of energy on the internet. So, one of the easiest ways to reduce your environmental impact is to swap some of your streaming time for offline activities like reading, gardening, or taking up a hobby. If you aren’t yet ready to cut down your streaming time, consider watching some videos with a lower resolution. 

Now that you understand the impact your digital activities can have, it’s time to clean up that inbox and rethink the way you use the web.