Think you’re doing your part to reduce the carbon footprint? Think again. If you’re an internet user, this lifestyle has a high price

Picture the scene. You say, ‘I’m trying to do physics homework, and I can’t for the life of me remember what gravitational potential energy is’. OK, that’s a fair point. Congratulations for taking your physics homework seriously. Now about that question. Do you ask your classmates by sending them a message, or do you … ‘I’ll Google it!’—thought so.

Google now processes around 40,000 search queries worldwide every second, which equates to about 1.2 trillion searches per year. Quite a jump when you consider that back in 1998, Google was processing just 10,000 search queries a day. In 2006 it was the same number per second. Chances are, the question you just asked has been asked millions of times before.

OK, your physics homework is done. You’re going out tonight, so you get ready. You’re all done, and you need opinions. Do you ask your parents downstairs, or do you … ‘I’ll take a selfie!’—thought so.

Over 17 million selfies are now uploaded to social media each week as of January 2014. Whilst they may not all be selfies, we upload an astonishing 1.8 billion photos a day to various spots on the internet.

You’re about to arrive at the party you’re heading to tonight. You forgot where you’re meeting your friends. Do you walk in and try and find them, or do you … ‘I’ll text them!’—yep, thought so.

Thirty-five per cent of global smartphone users use Facebook Messenger at least once a week, and Messenger is responsible for 10 per cent of all internet phone calls. Thirty billion messages are sent through WhatsApp a day. At the beginning of last year, Deloitte predicted that instant messaging apps combined (we’re talking Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik, WeChat, LINE, BBM etc.) would send 50 billion messages a day worldwide. That’s pretty staggering.

It’s fair to say that the world’s addicted to the internet, despite the fact that for every person that can get on the internet, there are another two people that can’t. Companies like Google (or should I say Alphabet?) and Facebook are attempting to tackle this with initiatives like Project Loon and Internet.org, but it’s worth noting that whilst we consider the internet to be worldwide, many people still aren’t on it.

When we talk about the cloud (a phrase used to describe certain aspects of the internet, like Google Drive for example: ‘It’s all stored on the cloud’), we tend to visualize it as … well nothing, don’t we? There was a piece a while ago from a British newspaper that wrote an article explaining iCloud, and they felt the need to mention that it’s not an actual cloud. Some people may remember Adam Hills then saying that everyone just instantly assumed that it would be a real cloud and when the cloud rained it would rain nudes. Nice.

Well, every time you upload that status update to Facebook or back up your files to Dropbox, that then gets taken to a data centre. Data centres are quite a loose term that could be used to describe a server room or vast warehouse-type buildings that dwarf some normal warehouses, and they are basically massive server rooms. They can be literally anywhere on earth. Facebook has a data centre in Sweden now, to give you an idea, in a relatively cold climate. It’s innovative as it uses the cold climate to cool the centre rather than using air conditioning. They could be anywhere.

Here’s the catch with these data centres. We don’t think they’re that bad for the environment, but combined, the servers in those centres are contributing to about 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s about the same as what air travel contributes.

Individually, we don’t really create a large amount of emissions through these means. Every Google search generates 0.2g of carbon dioxide, whereas watching You Tube for 10 minutes generates about 1g. The average Facebook user generates the equivalent of a carbon footprint of coffee annually (269g) through Facebook usage, and using Gmail for a year generates about 1kg a user.

This may not sound like much, but Google has only recently started to publicly announce its carbon footprint data. In 2013, Google’s carbon footprint was 1,766,014 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Most of that came from data centres.

Gary Cook is the senior IT analyst at Greenpeace, an organisation which has been monitoring data centres and their carbon footprints for many years. He claims: ‘If they’re built in the right way, it could be a great story and help the transition [to renewable energy]. If they’re built in the wrong way, it’s going to take us in the other direction, and increase our dependence on the sources of energy we have to move away from to address climate change’.

It’s not all bad news though.

Apple’s announced plans to shell out £1.25 billion on two European data centres, destined to be built in Galway, Ireland and Jutland, Denmark. The big thing with them? They’re both to be powered entirely on renewable energy. These centres are going to be some of the largest in the world, and they’re set to be Apple’s biggest European building project to date.

Greenpeace in the past haven’t been too happy with Apple, especially when it was revealed that 54 per cent of power going to their data centres was from coal power. Last year, however, they turned it around, claiming 94 per cent of their corporate facilities and 100 per cent of their data centres are powered by renewable energy. Even though this sounds good, they are still going to generate carbon dioxide and contribute towards global warming.

So what can tech companies do? Suggestions are few and far between online (ironically whilst trying to make this point I’ve generated around 0.5g of carbon dioxide, so I’m just as bad), but it seems as though the main idea is that tech companies just need to improve their efficiency.

Like Greenpeace said, they can be wonderful if they’re built right. We just need to make sure that tech companies do it right—and we’re not scared to hold them to account if they don’t.