Hidden Environmental Impacts of New Technologies

Technology and digital innovations have had a positive impact on our environment – we have the internet to thank for a large reduction of paper and waste. But these innovations can also have negative impacts that we should be aware of. The manufacturing of disks, external hard drives, and USB cables creates greenhouse gas emissions. When these items have reached the end of their life they often end up in landfills, where they do not biodegrade.

Although storing information in “the cloud” reduces the emissions associated with information technology, it still has a negative environmental impact. Accessing the cloud is no more difficult than pressing a few buttons, but the information accessed is stored in thousands of computer servers that require large amounts of electricity to operate. Since about ¾ of the electricity in the United States is produced by coal or natural gas, server farms end up contributing to climate change.

Globally, the electricity used by internet-related services causes 2% of all carbon emissions. While this may not seem like much, it is about equal to the carbon emissions produced by airplanes every year, and as internet access becomes more widespread this number will continue to grow.

Bitcoin also produces hidden environmental effects. Bitcoin is a type of digital money that is not tied to any bank or government, so the value of a bitcoin in real dollars is subject to fluctuation. Bitcoin “miners” make calculations that use a large amount of energy to verify transactions. This past November, bitcoin was responsible for using more electricity than the entire Republic of Ireland, and the miners’ calculations are responsible for most of that. The only way this energy use will fall is if the price of bitcoins fall – the price has been on a steady decline recently, though of course it could rebound.

Not many people consider the environmental impact of video streaming websites such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime either, but streaming video uses more energy than most websites because larger files are being transmitted. As technology advances, the resolution of videos is improving, so the size of the files are growing. A report published by the Digital Power Group estimates that streaming a video for an hour every week on Netflix uses more electricity than two new refrigerators.

Although it would be nearly impossible to stop streaming videos, using the cloud, or end the use of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it is important to be environmentally conscious of the effects that these practices have on our environment. Taking small steps like reading a book instead of watching a video, or storing documents on your laptop’s hard drive instead of in the cloud can help reduce your energy use.