Is using the internet as carbon heavy as flying?

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Is using the internet as carbon heavy as flying?

by Sara Ayech, originally published by Transition Network  | Mar 5, 2013

For this week’s opening piece on technology I wanted to find out more about communications technology. Phones, computers and the internet have become crucial not just in my own life but also to the spread of the Transition movement, and an essential part of projects like Social Reporting. A book published last year, ‘Greening the Media’, reports that in 2007 emissions from electricity consumed by information technology were 2.5-3% of the total, and comparable with aviation, but this is not something my Transition group have yet discussed, nor something there seems much getting away from. So I spoke to my friend Toby Miller (co-author with Richard Maxwell, of Greening the Media) to find out more.


Sara: I was interested that the book considers the inputs and outputs of our technology use in an ecological, almost permaculture way.

Toby: That’s very important. It’s very easy when you have an object in front of you, to think of it only in terms of its utility, but very difficult to think about it in terms of labour and the earth, and equally difficult to think of it as having a life once it’s passed out of our hands. We favour a life-cycle approach to consumer technology that highlights in equal measure the costs as well as the benefits of the gadgets we analyse.

Sara: I guess I hadn’t thought about my phone ultimately being a product of the earth at some level, as technology just seems so disconnected.

Toby: That’s right, it’s hard to make these connections, but we think it’s very important because one way in which people can act responsibly is to make themselves aware of the hidden environmental costs and share this knowledge.

Sara: So if in 2007 emissions from information technology were comparable with those from aviation, by now they must be far greater.

Toby: Well the chances are they are. Aviation was affected by the recession and although information and communication technology hasn’t gone up consistently, overall the trend shows a huge increase. There is an issue of how we measure and compare these things – so server farms, ships taking divers to check if underwater cables are working correctly – which bit of that is part of your carbon footprint when you are on the internet? And you can also argue that if a computer stops you from doing other more carbon heavy things (like flying), over a period of time then it’s worthwhile.

The question of measuring impacts also applies to the difference between reading a newspaper or book electronically versus in print. There’s a survey that says well over three quarters of book buyers in the UK think that it’s better for the environment to read on an e-book reader rather than buy a printed copy. And it’s true that two thirds of the carbon footprint in publishing comes from paper, whereas e-book readers don’t need pulping, printing or bleaching. There is just a one-off transportation of getting the e-book reader to you. So people say that the carbon footprint of a Kindle is off-set in a year. But, if you add the input of the production of the e-book reader, the raw materials, the manufacture, assembly, transport, plus its disposal, we’re talking about lots of minerals, lots of water, the electricity for all that, generally powered by fossil fuels, and the emissions from that whole process. Then, there’s the disposal of the device. Central processing units, which are in every computer, phone etc. have lots of toxins and carcinogens. Basically, there’s no universal method for comparing the emissions from books versus e-readers.

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