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The environmental impact of online behavior

Online browsing behavior has an impact on the environment; energy is required to run IT systems, data centers, and devices. But IT and all these structures also play a crucial role in the transition towards global sustainability. What can we say about sustainability, IT and electronics?

We all use laptops, smartphones, other technological devices and software in our daily life. Both for personal use and for work. Nowadays, more and more processes are carried out online and in the cloud. To ensure the proper functioning of all these IT infrastructure, an increasing number of devices and data centers are required. Along with all the resources and energy needed for this production and operation. So our digital dependence has a significant impact on the environment: that's why the IT and consumer electronics sectors are part of the focus sectors of Hedgehog Company.

But IT and all these structures also play a crucial role in the transition towards global sustainability. Technological innovations, smart systems, and various optimisations can help us take real steps toward sustainability. Let's dive into these topic: what can we say about the impact of our online behavior and developments and trends we see on this behalf?

Impact of online behavior

Our online behavior (e.g. browsing, searching, working & shopping) has an impact on the environment; a lot of energy is required to run all IT systems, data centers and devices. Did you know, for example, that sending a single email (text only) emits 4 grams of CO₂? And the impact quickly adds up; if you send an email with an attachment, you're already emitting 50 grams of CO₂. If you send on average 40 emails on a workday, that's approximately 10,000 emails in a year, resulting in an impact of around 49 kilograms of CO₂. This emission is equivalent to driving 100 kilometers by car. (1)

The impact of online behavior largely arises from the enormous amounts of data being transmitted and stored globally. This data needs to be processed, and this consumes a significant amount of energy. Opening a web page, for instance, consumes 0.2-0.6 MB, a WhatsApp message with an image is about 0.1 MB, and streaming an hour of Spotify consumes 100MB-150MB. Streaming Netflix in HD quality uses 2000 MB per hour.  (2)

Unnecessary emails, files, and data on servers contribute to storage and energy costs. Regularly cleaning up your digital possessions, and deleting what you no longer need, helps reduce server load and energy demand (3).

Reducing your digital footprint

So, reducing your digital footprint contributes to sustainability. What is a digital footprint? This is the sum of the total impact of your online behavior, including your internet use and other online activities. This impact, is,like the "normal" carbon footprint,,expressed in CO2-equivalent (the standard measure unit for greenhouse gas emissions).

Here are a few tips on how to reduce your digital footprint:

  • Video calling, in particular, has a significant environmental impact because streaming video consumes a lot of data and energy. So, whenever possible, opt for a traditional phone call or turn off your camera. So you can also stay in your home-office-fashion ;)
  • Disable automatic video playback and only watch videos when you really want to.
  • Regularly clean up your mailbox; delete what you no longer need. This reduces unnecessary data. For example, discard newsletters immediately after reading them or unsubscribe if you don't plan to read them anyways.
  • Take good care of your electronic devices. Handle them with care, and have them repaired if they break. Check if you still have a warranty; according to the right to repair, which has been in effect since 2021, manufacturers must provide spare parts for equipment for up to 10 years after production ends.
  • Turn off or put your devices in sleep mode when you're not using them. This way, you'll use less energy, and as a bonus, your battery will last longer.
  • Bookmark web pages or searches you frequently need, instead of browsing or searching for them again and again.
  • And the best tip: limit your online time, and choose for offline, low-impact activities more often.

Read more in our knowledge base article How to reduce your digital carbon footprint? Three tips

Data centers & energy consumption

Another topic closely related to IT and sustainability, are data centers. Data centers consist of large amounts of computer equipment, servers, storage devices, along with the associated network equipment and infrastructure. These centers are designed to store, process, manage, and distribute data for various purposes (such as hosting websites, running cloud-services, storing company data, etc.).

As our IT traffic continues to increase and become more complex, data centers play more and more an essential role. Existing data centers are expanding, and many new data centers are being established worldwide to meet the growing demand for their services.

Data center
Data center

But when we talk about data centers, we often also discuss their immense energy consumption. The numbers don't lie; research from the CBS (Central Bureau of Statistics) shows that the current electricity consumption of all data centers in the Netherlands is 3.2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). This is 2.8% of the total electricity consumption in the Netherlands, which is 111.5 billion kilowatt-hours.

Looking at the overall energy consumption in the Netherlands, which is 3,023.7 petajoules (PJ), the data center electricity consumption of 3.2 TWh translates to 11.52 PJ. This represents 0.38% of the total energy consumption. Globally, the total energy consumption of data centers was approximately 220-230 TWh (according to the 2021 International Energy Agency (IEA), data for 2021). (4)

Sustainability in the IT sector

Fortunately, the IT sector is actively working on sustainability efforts worldwide. Innovation and technological development certainly contribute to this cause. For instance, it has been observed that the number of internet users worldwide has increased by 60% since 2005, and internet traffic itself has grown by 440%. However, the energy consumption by data centers has remained stable for several years.

Increase of internet trafic & data flows (globally)
Increase of internet trafic & data flows (globally) Source: Wereldwijde trends in internetverkeer, workloads datacenters en energieverbruik in datacenters, 2010-2021. Internationaal Energie Agentschap (IEA) – Laatst bijgewerkt september 2022IEA. Alle rechten voorbehouden

This is because servers, storage devices, network switches, and data center infrastructure are becoming increasingly efficient. Furthermore, a growing proportion of all data is being stored in cloud- and hyperscale data centers. These are data centers managed by cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP). They host virtual machines, storage, and cloud services at scale for customers worldwide.

Hyperscale data centers are incredibly large facilities optimised for energy efficiency and can house hundreds of thousands of servers. Surprisingly, hyperscale data centers are more energy-efficient and therefore more sustainable than smaller data centers. When compared to smaller data centers, they consume significantly less energy, especially for cooling, due to economies of scale. Looking at the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of hyperscale data centers, they achieve much better scores than small data centers. The PUE value for the most efficient data centers is around 1.1, meaning that only 0.1 kWh is required for cooling/power supply for every kWh consumed by IT equipment.

Energy use by different types of datacenters Source: Wereldwijde datacenter energieverbruik gerangschikt per data center type, 2010-2022 Internationaal Energie Agentschap (IEA) – Laatst bijgewerkt October 2022IEA. Alle rechten voorbehouden

According to the 'Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact,' the European data center sector aims to be climate-neutral by 2023. When we look at Dutch data centers, it turns out that they already source 88% of their electricity sustainably. (5)

Expected growth in global data flows

Global data flows are expected to continue growing, due to developments such as AI (which will be discussed later), a significant increase in the number of internet users, and the increasingly prominent role that data and the cloud play in businesses across nearly every sector. ING recently predicted in a report that the global total digital data flow in 2023 will be more than 20 times larger, than it was in 2018. Consequently, the total amount of electricity required for data will double. According to these calculations, the share of data in the globally consumed electricity will grow from 3% in 2023 to 5% in 2030. (6)

Summary data centers and sustainability

So, what can we conclude about data centers and sustainability? Data centers are becoming increasingly vital worldwide, as data flows (due to the continuous growth of internet traffic and emerging technologies like AI) continue to expand. Fortunately, thanks to developments and efficiency improvements within data centers themselves, the amount of energy these centers require is not increasing likewise exponentially. Nevertheless, data centers still have a substantial impact on the environment. It is expected that from 2023 to 2030, the amount of electricity used by data centers will grow from 3% to 5% of the total globally consumed electricity. Sustainability measures such as choosing green energy, reusing residual heat, and the economies of scale in hyperscale centers will hopefully continuesly help to limit the impact of these centers.

The rise of AI

AI, or artificial intelligence, is a developement we can't ignore. Over the past year, there has been a enormous interest and hype around tools like ChatGPT, Dall-E2, DeepL, and Grammarly and how these tools are going to change our (working) lives. But what exactly is AI, and what can we say about its contribution or impact in relation to sustainability?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) refers to the simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems. These systems are capable of performing tasks, that typically require human intelligence: they can learn, reason, solve problems, and make decisions. AI algorithms can analyse data, recognise patterns, make predictions, and take autonomous actions. AI is used in various domains, including machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, and robotics, and it has numerous applications. AI is already being used in self-driving cars, medical diagnosis, and virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant.

The market size of AI worldwide
The market size of AI worldwide Source:

AI and sustainability

AI offers the capability to analyse data and discover patterns, on a scale and at a speed that was previously impossible. This enables policymakers, businesses, and organisations to better understand sustainability issues and develop more effective solutions, hopefully helping us protect and preserve our planet.

For example, the European Green Deal, launched in 2019, recognized the transformative power of AI in the sustainable transition. AI can be used for amore efficient use of scarce resources, predicting and managing environmental impacts, and optimising production processes and policies, thus contributing to sustainability. The Green Deal also emphasises that sustainability should be a focus not only in the application of AI technologies, but also in digitisation and digital transformation more broadly.

How exactly can AI contribute to sustainability? Here are some examples:

- More Efficient Resource Use: AI can assist in optimising the use of natural resources like energy, water, and raw materials. Smart AI systems can regulate and reduce consumption, leading to less waste.

- Environmental Monitoring and Prediction: AI can collect, analyse, and predict environmental data. This includes monitoring air quality, predicting natural disasters, tracking climate change, and preserving ecosystems.

- Sustainable Agriculture: In agriculture, AI-based systems can be used for precision farming, which involves using drones, sensors, and data analysis to grow crops more efficiently, conserve water, and reduce pesticide use.

- Circular Economy: AI can help identify recycling opportunities, optimise supply chains to reduce waste, and promote reuse.

- Transportation and Mobility: AI is used in self-driving vehicles, to improve fuel efficiency and reduce traffic congestion, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions.

There are many more ways in which AI can contribute to global sustainability. It is estimated that by 2030, AI could lead to a 4% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 2.4 gigatons of CO2-EQ.

Tips for organisations

Do you, after reading this article, want to take steps towards sustainability with your business, when considering IT and other electronics? We have some tips for you:

  1. Embrace Cloud Adoption: Instead of storing your data or software locally, opt for cloud adoption. Storing data in the cloud can reduce your carbon footprint, as local servers consume a significant amount of energy for hardware and cooling systems. Research from Paessler PRTG shows that only 28% of all IT infrastructure in the Benelux is stored in the cloud, giving a lot of space for improvement.
  2. Develop a Sustainability Strategy: Create a sustainability strategy, that for example outlines how your organisation will handle energy, water, and hardware conservation. According to the same research mentioned above, only 37% of IT companies in the Benelux have such a strategy. A sustainability strategy can benefit not only the environment, but also make your organisation more cost-efficient in the long run (by saving energy and materials).
  3. Set Sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): As with other aspects of your business operations, establish goals for your sustainability efforts and use KPIs to track your progress.
  4. Consider Sustainability Upstream: When choosing suppliers, consider how they address sustainability. For example, inquire information about how the data center where your business data is stored (if it's in the cloud) handles its residual heat. Additionally, check if your suppliers have long-term and green energy contracts. By looking not only at your own sustainability, but also that of your suppliers, you can further enhance the sustainability of your business operations and the products/services you provide.
  5. Explore Sustainability Downstream: Think about how you can promote sustainability, after a customer has purchased your product or service. Can customers return the product to you for recycling or extended use? This significantly reduces the product's environmental impact. Do you offer customers the option to return products for repairs? What are you doing to motivate customers to use your product sustainably, such as reducing energy consumption?
  6. Enable Remote Work: Facilitate effective remote work with functional IT infrastructure for both daily tasks and meetings. Commuting by car has a significant environmental impact, and enabling remote work can help reduce this. If 1 in 10 employed individuals in the Netherlands worked from home 1.5 more days per week, this could lead to a climate benefit of nearly 353,600 tons of CO2.
  7. And do you want to know the environmental impact of your products or organisation as a whole? A Life Cycle Assessment, LCA, will tell you just that. LCA's are interesting for organisations (ingeneral but also specific in the IT sector) because a LCA helps you become more environmentally responsible, comply with regulations, reduce costs, gain a competitive advantage, and improve your overall sustainability performance. Read more about LCA's in this context in our article E-waste & sustainability.

Do you want to take steps towards sustainability? IT is one of our focus sectors and we guided already many organisations here towards sustainability.
Please reach out to us, and let's talk about what steps will fit you and your organisation









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