DEEPTI’S RESEARCH DISPATCH

The Internet Needs to Go Green, Just Like Everything Else.

Digital Sustainability: Research Tidbit #3

Deepti Kannapan
5 min readDec 7, 2021

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It all started with the question of whether I wanted to blog every day, or to turn this ‘research dispatch’ category into a daily blog.

Several bloggers have given their takes on the pros and cons of daily blogging, mostly touching on creative benefits, SEO, and subscriber engagement, but none of them addressed my vague, undefined hesitation.

The idea of writing, potentially, another 22,000 blog posts in my lifetime (one a day for 60 years) raises my hair on end. I couldn’t tell you why, but the number seemed excessive, indecent, and wasteful.

Then, I realized that a part of me was wondering about the carbon footprint of that prodigious digital output. Going digital is generally regarded as an eco-friendly measure, and it definitely is, relative to print, if the consumption stays the same. But who prints and sends 22,000 newsletters?

This sounded like a case of the Jevons paradox, where a new technology decreases the energy needed per product, but demand increases so much that the net consumption stays the same, or even increases.

You might wonder: why would a webpage have a carbon footprint? All the data that makes up a webpage — the text, embedded images, templates and formatting information — are stored in data centers.

Much of the world’s data are stored, managed, and distributed by data centers. Data centers require a tremendous amount of energy to operate, accounting for around 1.8% of electricity use in the United States. Large amounts of water are also required to operate data centers, both directly for liquid cooling and indirectly to produce electricity.

Md Abu Bakar Siddik et al 2021 Environ. Res. Lett. 16 064017

Anyway, all that got me thinking about the carbon footprint of a Medium post.

What I knew going in

Barely anything. I’d heard a few wildly differing estimates of the carbon footprint of streaming video, one of the most resource-heavy activities on the internet.

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Deepti Kannapan

Painter, occasional cartoonist, aerospace engineer. Writes about sustainable technology, creativity, and journaling.