Blog>Internet Pollution: How the Internet Affects the Environment

Internet Pollution: How the Internet Affects the Environment

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Pella Helenius


Have you ever heard of the term ‘internet pollution’? For many of us, the internet is something abstract, and so we don’t consider it to be a contributor to real world environmental pollution.

The reality is that the internet is operated by physical databases located all over the world. This makes more sense for us – wires, routers, service-centres and fans to cool the machinery down. But strip the internet of its physicality, and we are left wondering, “how does the actual internet affect our world? Is there such a thing as a digital carbon footprint?”

While networks of cables, data-centres and databases have their own effect on the environment, we are, in this article, going to focus on and break down the abstract aspect of internet pollution from the user side.

How does internet usage affect the real world environment in 2022?

Internet pollution, or the impact that the internet has on an ecological level, is simply put, pollution caused by the internet, its databases, and its users.

Every email, search, minute of video streaming, and MB of stored data emits CO2. In fact, it is estimated that sending 20 emails per day, per person, per year, emits as much CO2 as driving a car for 1,000 km. So imagine all newsletter subscriptions, all spam emails, all order confirmations and all corporate emails that get sent and received every day, all over the world.

In 2022, we are able to measure the internet’s carbon footprint with a fair amount of certainty. It is estimated that the internet and its databases are emitting 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually (1 ton of carbon emissions equals driving a normal-sized car around the world once, or wasting 25 million plastic straws!).

The history of internet-usage

In 1991, there were approximately 2.3 million internet users. This number has rapidly increased in the last 27 years to a whooping 5.4 billion users, 2 billion of these based in China. The billionth user of the internet likely logged on for the first time in 2005, but only 6 years later the global user figure doubled to 2 billion.

So what happened in 2005 to cause such a huge jump in users?

The internet is and has always been a source of information, reading the news, shopping, banking, and much more. When the first social media and video streaming services were launched however, the jump became very prominent.

The first official social media was ‘SixDegrees’ created in 1997, where you could create a profile and talk to other people. A few years later in 2003, Myspace was launched. In 2004, Facebook was launched, and in 2005 – YouTube.

The environmental effect of video streaming

In our SEO and Carbon Emissions blog, we talk about the fact that utilising videos on your website might not be optimal for site speed unless it provides inherent value. Video streaming actually accounts for around 60% of internet emissions. Let’s take a closer look.


YouTube, a video streaming website, has a daily viewer count of about 122 million people globally. While streaming in itself does not actually emit a dangerously high amount of CO2, the sheer amount of people streaming makes for an enormous output.

To put this into context, Carbon Trust did a study on how streaming affects the environment, and concluded that one hour of streaming equals 3.5x that of microwaving a bag of popcorn, or 2.5x of driving a car for 100 metres. While this doesn’t seem like much, we will need to remember that the average weekly screen time of a Netflix streaming is about 9 hours per week, and there were 214 million active users as of 2021.

We also need to take into consideration what devices are being used, and what definition people are watching. If someone is watching an HD video from their 50" TV, this will of course affect the environment more than someone watching an SD video from their phone.

Video calls

The same logic also applies to video meetings. During the pandemic, many private persons and companies had to turn to digital meeting solutions to hold their daily meetings, and user traffic for Zoom, Teams, Skype and many others increased massively.

What many aren’t aware of, however, is that approximately 157 grams of CO2 is emitted in an hour-long video call, versus 6.2 grams from a voice-only call.

What does the future hold for Internet Pollution?

It all comes down to the amount of electricity usage, and the source of where the electricity comes from. Circa 10% of the world’s total electricity today is being used for upkeep and evolution of the internet. This is predicted to rise to around 20% by 2025, as the world is currently diving head-first into digitalisation.

There has been a huge upsurge in internet usage (especially in 2019-2020), and the trend is only growing. People all over the world are switching to higher broadband speeds, which essentially means that all data-centres globally will need to grow bigger and need more maintenance.

This is a worrying aspect in terms of the environment, and we will most definitely have to re-evaluate our ways of internet usage.

What we need to remember is that the future is not as bleak as the figures might make it seem – tons of companies in tech, marketing, ecommerce and more, are aware of these numbers and are actively making efforts to make the internet less of a damaging entity to the real life environment. A huge part of this for website administrators is choosing a green host, which we will be covering in our green host guide.

How ONQOR can help

We are an ethical marketing and web development agency based in London. We exclusively work with companies that are already making a change, or are dedicated to changing for the sake of our planet and its habitants (animals included, naturally).

Take part in the change for the better, join and support the companies and communities that are actively working towards a better future for the internet. Contact us today and see what we can do for you and your business.