Carbon Footprint of the Internet Over Time Since 1990 (With Graphics)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 18, 2024

Woman looks at the globe covered in computers all connected with carbon footprints of computers hovering above them and wonders about the total carbon footprint of the internet.

The concept of the internet was born in the 1960s, but today, the carbon footprint of the internet has grown detrimental to the environment.19

The internet is dependent on servers located in data centers worldwide. These data centers are connected by routers and cables that lie on the bottom of the ocean.

All of these need energy to work…lots of energy. And sadly, most of that electricity is generated by burning petroleum, coal, and natural gas.

These power sources are responsible for emitting high levels of CO2 as they burns fossil fuels, making the carbon footprint of the internet bigger than you might think. Carbon footprint calculators can now find these emissions numbers relatively accurately.

Estimated carbon dioxide emissions of factors related to the use of the internet.
In addition to this, more CO2 is emitted because hardware including computers, mobile phones, and servers are shipped worldwide.1

This complete guide examines the carbon footprint of the internet, and also points to green VPN and other technologies that can help reduce the emissions.

Carbon Footprint of the Internet: How Much Carbon Does the Internet Produce?

The carbon footprint of the internet is mainly made up of online streaming and downloading, online searches, cloud storage, and email sending.

By 2018 the internet processed 3.5 billion online searches every day via the Google search engine alone. These searches are mainly aimed at reaching the most popular websites and this process is responsible for at least 40% of the internet’s CO2 emissions.2

What Is the Carbon Footprint of the Internet?

When answering the question, what is the carbon footprint of the internet, the percentage of the CO2 emissions emitted by digital technologies must be considered.20

Every year, 39.9 billion tons of CO2 are emitted around the world. Digital technologies including the internet are responsible for 4% of this figure.

Carbon Footprint of Internet Usage

The amount of internet users around the world is directly related to the excessive carbon footprint of internet usage. The following table indicates the five countries with the highest number of internet users, as well as the country’s contribution to global CO2 emissions:

Country Number of Internet Users (Netizens) Percentage of Global CO2 Emissions
China 854 million netizens 27.0% CO2 emissions
India 560 million netizens 6.8% CO2 emissions
US 313 million netizens 15.0% CO2 emissions
Indonesia 171 million netizens 1.4% CO2 emissions
Brazil 149 million netizens 1.3% CO2 emissions

In total there are around 4.6 billion internet users around the globe.3

Social Media Carbon Footprint

Since the advent of social media, online users on various social media platforms have grown to a staggering 4.26 billion.

It is no wonder then that the social media carbon footprint is growing by the day.21

If one user spends time on 10 social media platforms for five minutes every day, the process would result in 20kg of CO2 emissions per year. That is the equivalent of driving a passenger car for 52.5 miles.

  • Youtube and E-mail Carbon Emissions

Infographics of Youtube and e-mail carbon emissions.

  • Facebook and Google Search Carbon Emissions

Infographics of Facebook and Google search carbon emissions.

  • Twitter and Messaging (Texting)

Infographics of Twitter and messaging carbon emissions.
The above infographic indicates the environmental impact of the most popular online platforms, including the Google search engine and email messaging:

TikTok Carbon Footprint

TikTok makes up the biggest percentage of carbon emissions when it comes to the social media component of the carbon footprint of the internet.

Infographics of TikTok carbon emissions.
TikTok boasts 1 billion active users.4 Every user’s estimated contribution to the TikTok carbon footprint is above:

Twitter Carbon Footprint

A single tweet generates an estimated 0.02g of CO2.

Twitter processes an average of 500 million tweets every day, which means that a total of 10 metric tons of carbon emissions are emitted every day.

Carbon Footprint of YouTube

The carbon footprint of YouTube is derived from the 1 billion views the platform receives every day. These views consume around 600 TWh every year, which is equal to 2.5% of electricity use worldwide.

This is further broken down into 4,167kg of carbon emissions per minute, which is equal to the amount of CO2 that 189 trees will capture every year. It is also equal to producing a total of 758 beef steaks.

YouTube’s 1 billion hours’ worth of views every day is also equal to the following:5

One Billion Hours Worth of YouTube Views Is Equivalent to
6,000 Tons of CO2 3,636 LA to London flights 1,304 cars on the road every year $ 5,871 for raising one child

Pie chart representation of factors contributing to the carbon emissions of one hour of YouTube streaming.
It must be noted however that online video consumption depends on the resolution of the device and the speed of the network connection.22

Carbon Footprint of Netflix

The carbon footprint of Netflix far outweighs that of YouTube, however. Users around the world are responsible for streaming 1.1 million viewing hours per minute.

This equates to 1.6kg of CO2 emissions per half hour of viewing. In turn, the platform is responsible for emitting 4,120,000kg of carbon emissions every single minute.

Note: You can get a binge watching carbon offset to erase the emissions from Netflix.

The following table compares the carbon footprint of Netflix to YouTube and other online platforms:

Platform Unit (Used for Measuring) Amount of CO2 Emissions
Netflix 30 minutes of viewing 1.6kg of CO2
Email Single email 4.0g of CO2
YouTube 10 minutes of viewing 1.0g of CO2
Google Single search 0.2g of CO2
Texting Single message 0.01g of CO2
Twitter Single tweet 0.02g of CO2

How Much Energy Does It Take To Send a Text?

A regular SMS message (text message) requires less energy and emits fewer carbon emissions than an email. It is estimated that a single text message of 140 bytes emits at least 0.00215g of CO2.

This calculation does depend on the size of the text message and whether more than one message needs to be sent to convey information. Also, less energy is consumed when a text is read on a mobile screen, compared to reading an email on a PC screen.

Carbon Footprint Calculator for Students

Students are among the most active social media and internet users in the world. The most frequented platforms by students and other users are TikTok, Reddit, and Pinterest. These platforms’ carbon emissions are as follows:

  • TikTok – 2.63g of carbon emissions per minute
  • Reddit – 2.48g of carbon emissions per minute
  • Pinterest – 1.3g of carbon emissions per minute

An online carbon footprint calculator for students allows them to calculate their personal carbon footprint while using different social media apps.23

Infographics of the formula of the estimated annual carbon footprint of .

The inputs needed are the estimated minutes spent on each platform per day. The calculation is shown in the image above.6

Carbon Footprint of the Internet

The carbon footprint of the internet also includes the manufacturing, shipping, and lifespan of hardware and electronics. This includes laptops, personal computers, and smartphones.

Carbon Footprint of a Laptop

It has been estimated that the average carbon footprint of a laptop is 422.5kg.

Pie chart representation of the estimated carbon footprint produced for each laptop.
This figure includes manufacturing emissions, the shipping process, as well as a laptop’s most productive years (first four years).7

Carbon Footprint of iPhone

An environmental report published in 2021 confirmed that an iPhone is responsible for 64kg of CO2 emissions. This finding was based on an iPhone 13 model with an onboard storage capacity of 128GB.

An iPhone 12 with an onboard storage capacity of 128GB emits 72kg of CO2.

The below graph details the breakdown of the carbon footprint of iPhone:8,24

Bar graph representation of the breakdown of factors contributing to iPhone carbon emissions.
In addition to the above, the iPhone’s lifespan (especially the first two years), is mostly dedicated to streaming over mobile data. This accounts for the following:

  • 2.16TB of mobile data over 4 years (iPhone’s total lifespan is between 3 and 4 years).
  • Taking network emissions factors into consideration, 4G or 5G networks’ electricity consumption is equal to 512 kWh.
  • The following should be considered: US: 1 kWh is equal to 427g of CO2. France: 1 kWh is equal to 60g of CO2
  • This means that 512 kWh is equal to 220kg of CO2 emissions in the US, while 512 kWh is equal to 50kg of CO2 emissions in France.
  • Furthermore, 32.4kg of CO2 emissions should be added to the total, which is related to the reduction of the mobile network regarding this amount of data.

Carbon Footprint of an Email

Just about every online activity comes with its own carbon footprint. This includes the process of sending and receiving emails.

The email carbon footprint includes the following factors:

  • Amount of spam in an email inbox
  • Size of emails sent and received
  • Type of server and network used
  • Devices used to send and receive emails

The following table highlights the estimated CO2 emissions of an email:9

Transmission Length and Type Sent To  Sent From Total Emissions
Short Email  Individual Using a 4G Smartphone 0.4 grams CO2
Short Attachment Individual Using a 4G Smartphone 1.8 grams CO2
Short Email Individual Using a PC with Wi-Fi Network 3.3 grams CO2
Short Email Group Using a PC with Wi-Fi Network 4.9 grams of CO2

Carbon Footprint of a Phone Call

It is estimated that the average carbon footprint of a phone call, lasting one minute, is 0.1g of CO2.

Considering the widespread use of smartphones, it has been calculated that using a smartphone for one hour per day over 365 days produces higher carbon emissions than two return flights between London and Glasgow.25 This totals around 1.4 tons of CO2.

Multiply that by 5 billion smartphone owners and the figure becomes extreme.

Line graph representation of the smartphone data traffic per month from the different regions in the world.
The above graph highlights mobile data traffic in GB per month:10

Google Drive Carbon Footprint

Google claims that it has been carbon-neutral since 2007, therefore the Google Drive carbon footprint should be non-existent – from their side anyway.

Using Google Drive does cut down on emissions, however, because it allows for collaboration within several documents in real time and eliminates the need for emails containing attachments.

The company is also aiming to run on carbon-free energy by 2030 and is planning to launch a carbon footprint calculator for the Google workspace in 2023.

Carbon Footprint of the Internet: How Much CO2 Does the Internet Produce?

When considering all the information thus far, the question remains: How much CO2 does the internet produce as a whole?

To answer this question, the following fact must be considered: Between 2000 and 2020, the number of netizens multiplied by six in Europe, 21 in Asia, and 139 in Africa, which now means that out of the world’s almost 8 billion people, around 63% are active internet users.

The figure presented at the beginning of this article (internet usage accounts for 3.7% of global CO2 emissions), is equal to global air traffic.26 This figure is also expected to double by 2025, even if the sums are still estimates at this point.11

Business Carbon Footprint Calculator

Because of the extremely high CO2 emissions related to online and daily business activities, companies around the world are using different versions of a business carbon footprint calculator to determine where emissions can be decreased.

The basic calculation of a business carbon footprint calculator is as follows:Infographic on the basic formula used in computing for the business carbon footprint.

  • The activity data refers to the scope of activities that produce CO2 emissions.
  • The emission factor refers to the amount of CO2 emissions related to each activity.12

Activity data is further divided into the following:

  1. Scope 1 – Direct CO2 emissions that the company has control over. This includes various consumptions such as fuel, equipment, heating, etc.
  2. Scope 2 – Indirect CO2 emissions related to lighting and other sources of heating such as water heating.
  3. Scope 3 – CO2 emissions that the company has no control over, such as transportation of raw materials, employee transport, etc.

Calculating the total carbon footprint of a business requires the following inputs:

  • Relevant year
  • Limits related to organization and operations.
  • Consumption data figures
  • The total is calculated by multiplying activity data by the emissions factor.
  • A reduction plan aimed at reducing the overall carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint of Data Storage

The carbon footprint of data storage also factors into a business’ overall CO2 footprint.

Data centers are becoming increasingly complex in their handling of the IT infrastructures required to store the growing data around the world, which means more energy is consumed than ever before.27

It has been estimated that data centers’ energy consumption accounts for 0.3% of global carbon emissions and also accounts for 1.8% of electricity consumption in the United States alone.

Data Storage Environmental Impact

The data storage industry, and its energy consumption by default, is growing at an exponential rate of 50% per year.

Because energy is still produced by fossil fuels, it has been predicted that the computing (technology) sector will consume around 20% of global electricity by 20%. That is a 7% increase in the current figure.

Data centers that are responsible for data storage are often located in countries with warm to hot climates, which means their cooling consumption jumps to 80%, as opposed to 40% in cooler climates.

In addition to this, data centers rely on batteries that eventually contribute to electronic waste and toxic chemicals that pollute the environment.

Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage

The carbon footprint of cloud storage is higher than that of the global airline industry. This is because one data center consumes the same energy as 50,000 homes in the US.

Of course, there are many advantages to using cloud data storage, especially when it comes to cost savings, but measures must be put in place to mitigate the environmental impact.

These measures include:

  • Choosing cool climates for data centers
  • Reducing the quantity of data and eliminating duplicates
  • Decommissioning redundant centers13

Carbon Footprint of Big Data

Big data refers to the collection of huge volumes of data, which cannot be stored using traditional centers or tools.

Examples of big data include the New York Stock Exchange and the whole of the social media infrastructure.28

When it comes to calculating the carbon footprint of big data, these examples must be considered.

Companies listed on the stock exchange are responsible for emitting at least 40% of CO2 on a global scale.

Social media apps are responsible for the following:14

Bar graph representation of the carbon emissions of different social media platforms.

Social Media App CO2 Emissions (Grams per Minute)
TikTok 2.63g of CO2 per minute
Reddit 2.48g of CO2 per minute
Pinterest 1.30g of CO2 per minute
Instagram 1.05g of CO2 per minute
Snapchat 0.87g of CO2 per minute
Facebook 0.79g of CO2 per minute
LinkedIn 0.71g of CO2 per minute
Twitter 0.6g of CO 2per minute
Twitch 0.55g of CO2 per minute
YouTube 0.44g of CO2 per minute

Data Center Carbon Footprint Calculator

A data center carbon footprint calculator depends on the following information:

  • Power Usage Effectiveness
  • IT Load
  • Data Center Location
  • Currency
  • Cost of Electricity by kWh
  • CO2 Footprint (kg/kWh)
  • CO2 Avoided (kg/kWh)

The power usage effectiveness and IT load can be dependent on two different scenarios.15

Carbon Footprint of 1GB Data

Web development and other online development activities contribute to the carbon footprint of the internet.

This is especially true when reckless web development processes are followed.

The following factors are important when determining the impact of global data consumption, including web development:

  • The amount of electricity it takes to transfer data
  • The CO2 emissions produces by that calculated amount of electricity
  • The carbon footprint of 1GB data

The estimates are as follows:

  • 5.12 kWh of energy per GB of transferred data
  • 600g of CO2 emissions for each kWh
  • The carbon footprint of 1GB data is 3kg (during download or transfer)

This means, for instance, that one hour of Netflix viewing (HD), results in 10kg of CO2 emissions related to the bandwidth.

Modern website developments are pushing up bandwidth usage and therefore increasing CO2 emissions.29 For example, the longer it takes to load a complexly designed website, the more emissions are emitted.

CNN’s website alone is estimated to be responsible for 525 metric tons of CO2 every month, because of its loading time. This is the equivalent of the CO2 emissions of 1,300 cars during the same timeframe.16

Estimated kWh per GB

It has been estimated that the kWh per GB is 0.015. This then means that the amount of CO2 emissions per kWh is around 0.28kg.

  • 0.28 x 0.015 = 0.0042kg of carbon emissions for each GB.17

How To Reduce Digital Carbon Footprint

In conclusion, the most important question that should be answered is – how to reduce digital carbon footprint.

There are several tried and trusted ways to reduce CO2 emissions and an overall personal digital carbon footprint.30 These include:

  • Shutting down and turning off devices that aren’t in use for longer than two hours a day.
  • Cleaning out email inboxes regularly.
  • Charging devices only until they’re fully charged.
  • Not using the Autoplay function on streaming platforms.
  • Only using online GPS apps when absolutely necessary.
  • Unsubscribing from non-useful newsletters and online email promotions.
  • Only replying to emails when absolutely necessary.
  • Bookmarking websites for future use.
  • Making use of cloud providers that rely on renewable energy sources.
  • Deleting and cleaning up files and folders on the cloud.
  • Downloading instead of streaming.
  • Setting streaming limits.18

Following these guidelines and implementing measures to cut down on personal and business carbon footprints, will have a positive effect on the carbon footprint of the internet as well.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of the Internet

What Is the Carbon Footprint of the Internet?

Global internet usage makes up around 3.7% of global CO2 emissions. This figure is also equal to the CO2 emissions of all the air traffic around the world.

How Much Carbon Does the Internet Produce?

There are over 4 billion active internet users (netizens), who all play a part in the 3.7% of internet carbon emissions that form part of the total global carbon emissions. The main cause of the internet’s extreme energy usage levels is manufacturing/production, and shipping, as well as powering and cooling.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Bitcoin?

Ever since Bitcoin was launched, it has emitted an estimated 200 million tons of CO2. This is mainly because of Bitcoin mining over the company’s 13-year lifespan.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Teams Message?

Microsoft Teams negates the necessity for in-person meetings, making remote working easier. The carbon footprint of Teams is 0.055 gEqCO2, which is about 50% higher than that of Slack and Skype.

Read More About Carbon Footprint of the Internet


References

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