How Green is the Internet? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Groceries at your doorstep, data on your fingertips, an Uber at the tap of a button and information overload- human negotiations with the internet have definitely changed drastically over the past few decades. Research in the area, too, has transformed-covering not just its evolution and impact, but also assessing innovative and revolutionary ideas in terms of access, internet infrastructure as well as governance to name a few. With over 3.2 Billion internet users in the world , and over 400 million of these from India , this is no surprise. How can we move beyond particular fascinations with the internet and engage holistically with it? — by moving towards a dimension of internet infrastructure studies that has large policy and sustainable development benefits. This paper, then, will seek to elucidate one central issue area: as the third highest country in terms of internet use, what is the current environmental impact of internet usage in India?
It is widely recognized that India still has miles to go before it reaches complete internet connectivity — be it at the rural or urban geographies. With millions still on the fringes of the online/offline world, it does seem that having access to the internet is still a privilege. However, with over 400 million (around 35 % of the total population) active users, and a fast growing young user base, the implications are vast. The message here is clear, India’s communications reality is changing, and it is changing at warp speed; second, there are constant reassurances to convince us of its growth. At a policy level, the national government has put in place an $18 billion Digital India Initiative that has an outlay of ₹70,000 crore for creating a high-speed Internet grid that will help bridge the rural-urban online divide. At a consumer level, more people are beginning to realise the benefits of using the net for their own daily needs. This should mean that more people will be able to avail the multitude of benefits from this wide web (using less paper, banking online, travelling less for shopping, for example), doing things that are obviously good for the environment, right? Yes, and no.
Measuring or assessing environment impact, for any particular product or service, requires a look into the cost foregone by using that particular product or service. In order to get a wider look into the environmental impact of the internet, we need to check the data available for hardware usage and waste generation, infrastructure provisions and finally, accurate data generation.
Climate change and carbon footprints are terms that have been used as buzzwords to death this past decade, but while environmental sustainability remains at the forefront of many-a-government, there is little data/ debate/ analysis/ examination of the environmental impact of communication systems connected to the net. This is true especially for India. In 2011, Joel Gombiner wrote an academic paper  on the problem of the Internet’s carbon footprint, with a premise based on the lesser known fact that the ICT industry has been ‘responsible for two to four percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions’- an area that the Climate Group’s Smart 2020 report  had focused on back in 2008 as well. Clearly this is a war on the environment that is yet to receive large-scale attention.
“What a waste”
‘By 2020, a third of the global population will own a PC, 80% will own a mobile phone, and one in 20 households will have a broadband connection’ . What does this mean? It means that as demand increases for internet-capable machines, it is vital to look at cycles of ownership and disposal. Wifi access routers, mobile phones, laptops, desktops, optic fibre infrastructure, Ethernet cables- all of these products individually and together, add to the constant waste creation cycle. With mobile ownership at a massive 1009.46 million (as of May 2015), and 2G/3G/4G services on the rise, in addition to the already 400 million strong online community owning laptops/desktops, e-waste is now regarded as one of the largest growing problems in India. While about ‘2.7 million tons of electronic waste are being generated annually’, a large portion of this is from mobile phones/laptops/desktops. With high turnover of new products, as well as obsolete machines, and largely unregulated practices of waste collection, there are areas of where extremely hazardous contents are entering the air, underground water and soil from our city landfills. About 80 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions are produced by India currently-these emissions only add on to the total carbon dioxide and other noxious emissions created at the manufacturing stage as well as from the use of devices. While several recycling factories have come up to tackle the gargantuan task of using e-waste, there are of, course, other areas that require immediate attention- this includes mining safety, human rights of workers, natural mineral resource excavation and risk control measures. While rules are in place for the re-use and sorting of e waste (which include suggestions that plants be set up for the sorting, dismantling and processing of waste so that hazardous parts can be treated while the rest is recycled), the reality is far from it. E waste landfills are usually “processed” or mined by manual labor who wear little to no protection from the tiny parts/components that can cause them bodily harm- often causing them musko-skeletal, respiratory or gastro intestinal illnesses. A study done by the NGO Chintan, which studied over 2000 wastepickers, found that they had no idea about the health risks their livelihood poses . This urban informal workforce are at the forefront of the waste management cycle and but their current status raises the question- whose responsibility is it to make e-waste recycling safe? The contractors who hire the manual workers, the recycling plants who buy the materials from them, or the manufacturers who create the products?
Order in chaos — The Internet infrastructure landscape
Another way to assess environmental impact is by understanding the current internet infrastructure landscape — the supply structure. Under the Digital India initiative, the Central government plans to lay 700,000 km (434,960 miles) of broadband cable connecting 250,000 village clusters in the next three years and constructing 100 new “Smart Cities” by 2020 . More connectivity also equals more data centres, larger servers, network equipment, cooling equipment, constant electricity usage and generators. A report by Gartner stated that data centres on average, ‘account for a quarter of the energy consumed by the entire ICT sector’.
As more and more data is generated- what is called our digital footprint- more information is sent back and forth to servers within data centres.
More data = more servers = more electricity = more emissions.
Data storage is being called one of the ‘primary drivers of emissions’ in the ICT industry. According to Gartner, about 6.6 million sq feet of data centre capacity exists today in India. Of course, their benefits do seem to override the electrical cost- using big data for research, social networking, new forms of information processing are just some of them. In addition, some steps are being taken by companies to cut down their environmental (and financial) cost by merging to form collocation spaces. In India, there are, in total, over a hundred collocation data centres in India . These collocation spaces are data centers in which businesses can rent space for their servers and other computing needs.
For the mobile broadband industry, connecting millions more to the Internet also means a jump in the device emissions through routers, modems, cell towers etc. These cell towers and data centres perform at a sub optimal level due to the pervasive power deficit across India. Increasing times for load shedding in the semi-urban and rural areas also means a greater burden on generators which are usually diesel, and tend to greatly increase energy costs. Telecom towers, a study (ibid) says, consumes 2 billion litres of diesel a year, accounting for almost 5 million tons of CO2 annually .
However, studies are being done on programs that uses renewable energy to power these towers- potentially cutting down emissions considerably. With the growth of Smart Power Grids, Energy Proportional Behavior and the rise of internal ‘Green Code’ with ICT companies, there is hope for energy efficiency methods to allow for greater utilization of machines and infrastructure at lower environmental cost.
Having tried a few websites that allow you to trace your own carbon footprints , (depending on which household item/ type of transport/ you want to check it for) it does still seem to be quite complicated and opaque. Especially since most of these websites ignore the usage of particular technology/ other products that leave a footprint, and are hence, skewed in the data they provide. I was unable to pinpoint a footprint for my history of computer/laptop usage, and while HP and other companies do maintain online calculators, magnifying this to all gadgets that utilize the internet across entire populations that use it, is definitely a gargantuan task. Until this area is more user friendly and accurate, it will be quite impossible to research this aspect of the internet’s impact on the countless products owned by individuals.
Besides inaccurate and vague data generated at an individual level, there is also little to no information on a per-click basis, what an individuals’ contribution is. What does my time surfing the internet truly imply? Does my constant connectivity to the net from my phone/ laptop for over 15 hours a day mean something more than what I use it for? The information I found zeroed in on the terms direct and indirect emissions- that the company manufacturing my phone or laptop have resulted in direct emissions but that there are indirect emissions as well, all the things that happen for the laptop/mobile to have reached me have an impact, the hundreds of websites I scour in a week have an impact, right down to the staff of software companies I have downloaded from, have an impact. While this seems too minute to calculate, too cumbersome to pin down, it brings us to the point where any metric to have a final and definite number attached to our internet usage can never be accurate. In their book, The Burning Question, Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee put forth the view that it is because of the infrastructure and mental lock — in that the world has put itself in, a state which disallows a wider understanding of real issues, that prevents any new energy efficiency technologies to be put in place.
India has become a big player in ICT industry worldwide- especially in the research and development areas. With our participation in the Global ICT Standardization Forum, it is vital that there is continued effort towards sustainable methods of tackling e-waste, ensuring that the growth of internet infrastructure and governance follow particular guidelines. The internet, of course, plays a crucial role in bringing us closer to a low-CO2 based world-but do its environmental benefits outweigh the end impact? Maybe/ Maybe not. While there are increasing number of advocates of the low- energy impact of the web , it is not possible to live in a vacuum of its benefits, but to also engage with the wider web of its functioning and operations. The significance of well informed opinions and actions should be based on correct data — more in depth research in this field is how we can come closer to it. If sustainable and inclusive development has to go hand in hand with Smart cities, and if India is serious about it, it is high time we made ICT a more environment friendly industry as well as a research friendly industry. Should you as an individual stop everything you do with the internet? No! But it is time to think, talk, question and research about it.
 International Telecommunications Union. 2015. ‘ICT Facts & Figures- The World in 2015’ https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2015.pdf.
 IAMAI. 2015. http://www.iamai.in/media/details/4490.
 Gombiner, Joel. http://www.consiliencejournal.org/index.php/consilience/article/viewFile/141/57 (last accessed on 01/08/2016).
 Global E-Sustainability Initiative. 2008. http://www.smart2020.org/publications/.
 Singh, Om Pal & Pratibha Singh. IJERMT. 2015. http://www.ermt.net/docs/papers/Volume_4/12_December2015/V4N12-190.pdf.
 India Climate Dialogue. 10th December, 2015. http://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2015/12/10/indias-rising-tide-of-e-waste/.
 Financial Express. ‘Govt has grand IT Plans for India’. April 2015. http://www.financialexpress.com/economy/it-plans-suffer-from-power-cuts-congestion-and-monkeys-in-pm-narendra-modis-varanasi/59770/.
 Smarter 2020 — The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future. http://gesi.org/assets/js/lib/tinymce/jscripts/tiny_mce/plugins/ajaxfilemanager/uploaded/SMARTer%202020%20-%20The%20Role%20of%20ICT%20in%20Driving%20a%20Sustainable%20Future%20-%20December%202012.pdf.
 For example — http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx.
 Think Progress. ‘Debunking the myth of internet as an energy hog’. June, 2010. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2010/06/21/206254/internet-energy-use-myth/.
Aishwarya Panicker is currently an Independent Consultant, with over 5 years of experience in the development and policy space in India. She has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College, and a graduate degree in Global Politics (specializing in Political Economy) from the London School of Economics. She works closely on the institutional problems of service delivery in the rural and urban contexts — looking at social sector policies, technology, governance, and their impact on citizen-state interactions in India. Prior to becoming an Independent Researcher, she worked at the Centre for Policy Research for three years. She has also worked with CKS, CII, and FICCI in the past.
This post was originally published on the CIS website as part of the ‘Studying Internets in India’ series. It is re-published here under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.