Network sustainability: an unspoken source of carbon emissions

In this guest post, Alissa Starzak, global head of public policy at web application security firm Cloudflare, sets out what can be done to green-up the information superhighway.  

As the internet has become more embedded into our everyday lives, going digital has been lauded as a way to help save the Earth. Using the internet reduces paper consumption as we digitise our correspondence, files and photos, and can reduce carbon emissions from commuting as we move meetings online.

Yet a study by the Boston Consulting Group found the Internet is actually responsible for 2% of all global carbon output – the equivalent of the entire aviation industry.

As internet usage continues to increase, accelerated by the pandemic, the sustainability of the networks that support it will become an increasingly pressing issue. The global population that uses the Internet reached 5.2 billion people in 2021, a 52% increase from 2016. In the UK alone, internet use more than doubled in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

For every search we do, online order we make, and video call we join, there is an environmental impact from the datacentres, servers, and other physical infrastructure that the internet relies on to run. Companies that have built their business around the internet have a role to play in addressing this impact and in working towards a more sustainable future.

So, how do we make the internet more sustainable?

Powering networks on renewable energy is a great place to start. The internet is essentially a collection of groups of connected computers that can send data to each other. These computers are hosted in datacentres around the world that require power to keep the equipment running and to make sure they’re cool enough to prevent the computers from overheating.

According to the United Nations, energy generation is the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for approximately 35% of total emissions. Investing in renewable energy to account for energy used by these datacentres will go a long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of the internet.

Our network spans more than 270 cities and operates within 50 milliseconds of 95% of the internet-connected population globally, and last year we committed to powering our entire network on 100% renewable energy. This represents a big step forward, and makes sustainability the default setting for millions of internet users.

Building the internet can also be done more sustainably. Historically, developers haven’t had much choice in the energy source of the servers they’re using. Often, they have compute-intensive tasks to complete that aren’t latency specific (meaning they can be scheduled to run during off-hours), such as running system updates. New tools such as Green Compute on Cloudflare Workers allow developers to schedule these tasks to run exclusively on parts of the network housed in datacentres powered by renewable energy.

This brings sustainable computing without the need for any additional time, work, or complexity and means developers can minimise the impact of any scheduled work, regardless of how complex or energy intensive.

Promoting efficiency

Increasing efficiency is also a huge part of the sustainability equation. We’re accustomed to thinking about efficiency in terms of our use of plastic, paper or electricity, but we should also consider more fundamental drivers like system architecture. We can improve efficiency not only by building networks on more energy efficient hardware, but also by migrating to more efficient cloud-based applications, and reducing the amount of underutilised equipment through economies of scale like shared access to cybersecurity tools and localised content delivery.

Our data shows us that 50% of internet traffic is automated, meaning it comes from an automated script, software or algorithm, rather than a human. Making these automated computing tasks more efficient by using processes such as caching can save energy and time for the internet user by storing data more locally so it can be more easily accessed in the future.

Staying transparent and accountable

Ultimately, the key to network sustainability is transparency. Demystifying where the energy powering the internet comes from and where the areas of inefficiencies lie is key to making it more sustainable.

It’s important that network companies keep data on carbon emissions, energy usage, and equipment efficiency. Not just for themselves, but also for their customers, who are increasingly interested in gaining insight into the sustainability of their Internet usage.

Measuring internet carbon emissions can also be difficult, so we offer our customers the ability to quantify their individual footprint and carbon savings from our network in comparison to internet averages for the same volumes. Customers can view customised data to report on, and set sustainability goals, as well as view recommendations on actions they can take to reduce their carbon impact.

The good news is that the technologies that make the internet greener are available today. By powering networks on renewable energy, deploying caching and edge computing, and measuring carbon emissions and energy output, companies that benefit from the internet can contribute to reducing its environmental footprint. When networks become more sustainable, the entire internet benefits.

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