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1 July, 2021

New research means that scientific advice changes all the time. Sometimes more knowledge means more bad news, but sometimes it provides reassurance. This is the case for a subject we have written about at length: the carbon impact of the internet. 

A new study from two pre-eminent scientists in the field concludes that increased data usage is not leading to a greater environmental impact, even during the unprecedented rise during Covid-19. For example, US networking giant Cogent saw its traffic increase by 38% in 2020, while its energy usage actually decreased by 21%. The reason, broadly, is efficiency. Previous studies underestimated the impact of new technology in reducing electricity usage, and didn’t account for the huge energy savings of moving from inefficient local servers (particularly in offices) to ruthlessly efficient cloud computing. 

It’s important that this message gets out because our understanding of the relative carbon impact of different activities affects, both, behaviour and policy making. An unrealistic understanding of our digital carbon impact could lead us, for example, to turn off our video on Zoom calls, when we actually need that social contact to feel connected to people. Or it could lead to policy that fails to recognise that digitising is a major lever for meeting our net zero targets. 

However, one of our previous warnings still stands: digital currencies. Without counting Bitcoin, the internet uses 1% of the world’s electricity. Bitcoin alone uses 0.4%. As one of the paper’s researchers puts it, “I think that’s a pretty good, high-value use of that 1 percent [for the internet]… I’m not sure the same is true for Bitcoin’s share.” 

By Ben Wood

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