The internet is firmly embedded in human life, but we need to consider its rising physical and non-physical costs to the environment and our ability to address climate change.
That’s according to Dr. Hamish van der Ven, assistant professor in the UBC Department of Wood Science, whose lab investigates how technology impacts the great sustainability challenges of our time. In this Earth Day Q&A, Dr. van der Ven discusses how the internet can harm our hope, attention and ability to recognize the truth, and how disconnecting from the internet could help.
Q: How does using my cellphone contribute to climate change?
“There’s a growing integration of the internet in our day-to-day lives, from cellphones to televisions, to cars. Globally, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector constitutes two to four percent of annual carbon emissions. This is roughly comparable to the aviation sector. Most of the emissions stem from purchased electricity for data centres which consume 220-320 TWh per year. That’s equivalent to the emissions from over 22 million gasoline cars per year.
Power-intensive activities like Bitcoin mining or streaming have correspondingly large carbon footprints. For everyday internet use such as watching Instagram reels, a crude calculation would divide the 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions estimated to be produced by digital technologies between all internet users around the world, meaning each of us is responsible for about 413 kg of carbon dioxide a year.
What’s worrisome is that this sector is predicted to make up 30 percent of all electricity consumption by 2030. Depending where you are in the world, that power will be supplied by fossil fuel-based sources.”
Q: What are the non-physical climate costs of the internet?
“Some of the greater and arguably more insidious impacts of the internet on the climate crisis are the social and political effects it can have on the very assets we need to find solutions: hope, concern, attention, and truth. These impacts disproportionately affect young people, the most important demographic for climate action.
We know that exposure to social media is correlated with heightened levels of anxiety and depression in young people, and globally these disorders are on the rise. Social media algorithms are programmed to show bad or controversial news to keep people online longer, and it’s like having a beam of negativity into your pocket. This connection between climate despair and social media use by youth is something my lab is researching.
Young people need a personal connection to nature, a sense of why wilderness is valuable, to have the passion to stand up and take action on the climate crisis. When young people spend more time online, they tend to spend less time outdoors. The internet is also a distraction factory that erodes young people’s capability to do focused thinking to address complex challenges, like the climate crisis. And finally, social media has been abundant source of climate misinformation. In order to address the climate crisis, we first need everyone to acknowledge there is a crisis, and that human activities caused it.”
Q: What can we do?
“We can all take designated, lengthy periods of offline time. Whether that’s going on a deliberate vacation from the internet, having a safe spot to check your phone into at the end of the day, creating physical spaces at home or work to be disconnected from your devices, or taking offline weekends. And as much as possible, spend time in nature for the restorative and spiritual benefits.
Policy-makers could take steps to protect young people, including introducing age filters for social media platforms, raising public awareness of the health risks of internet addiction, and subsidizing programs that get youth out into nature. They could also regulate workplaces to ensure people feel safe to disconnect; for instance, France passed regulations prohibiting companies from contacting employees after hours.”
Learn more about Hamish and his research here.