Why viral cat videos might kill the planet

Agenda guest Ron Deibert, of U of T’s Citizen Lab, looks at the negative impact the internet is having on our climate
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Jan 28, 2021
Ron Deibert has written about how our use of the internet and social media “generates a kind of hidden tax on the natural environment." (Gregor Fischer/republica/flickr.com)

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As director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, Ron Deibert has spent years thinking about how the latest communication technologies are affecting us all. On Wednesday’s episode of The Agenda, he talked to Steve Paikin about his new book Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society.

They had a wide-ranging conversation about the often very negative effects that the internet and social media have on democracy and how people consume information.

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One aspect of Deibert’s book they didn’t have time to cover is the threat the internet poses to our environment.

During the pandemic, I’ve taken some solace in the fact that I’ve at least been reducing my carbon footprint while being holed up at home, since I’ve been driving less and travelling less.

But it turns out that Netflix streaming and videoconferencing with coworkers are actually having a considerable impact on climate change.

The internet’s “hidden tax”

While our digital experiences may feel “clean,” Deibert writes, our use of the internet and social media “generates a kind of hidden tax on the natural environment that we don’t feel, see, smell or touch as we blithely swipe away at a text or tweet.”

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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One 2019 study estimated that the energy used by digital technologies accounted for 3.7 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions — a higher percentage than what’s produced by air travel. And keep in mind: that estimate was made before internet usage increased by 50 to 70 per cent in the first few months of the pandemic.

The problem is the enormous amounts of electricity required for all those emails, internet searches, and video streams. Much of the world’s energy is still produced by coal and other fossil fuels. Even if you live in a place such as Ontario, where the electricity grid is relatively emission-free, you’re still not off the hook: your internet and video-streaming activities rely on large, energy-hungry data centres in parts of the world still heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants.

As Deibert notes, a 2017 study by Greenpeace found that some tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, are making significant efforts to reduce their electricity consumption and to use green energy. But it also found that others — Amazon and Netflix, for example — were falling short or failing to be transparent about their electricity use.  

And demand for digital technology — and the energy to power it — is only growing. “Over half of the world’s population is not yet connected to the internet, but that is changing fast,” Deibert writes.

Dirty devices

The environmental damage caused by our digital habits isn’t limited to the energy used to power them. Smartphones and tablets require materials mined in energy-intensive and environmentally dangerous ways.

Extracting the rare-earth minerals needed for essential components of many digital devices involves treating them with enormous amounts of water and chemicals. Deibert, for example, writes that mining and processing one tonne of rare earth elements creates 75,000 litres of contaminated water and one tonne of radioactive residues. Some of these mining operations are close to major rivers, threatening the drinking water of tens of millions of people.

The mining of other crucial materials for our digital devices, such as the metals used in their batteries, also has potentially devastating environmental side effects.

It is often possible to obtain these materials in a more environmentally friendly way. But, as Deibert points out, a typical smartphone can be made up of tens of thousands of components from all over the world. That means it’s extremely challenging for even a well-intentioned company to ensure that labour and environmental standards are being followed throughout its supply chain.

Time to ditch your phone?  

Does that mean that, if we want to save the planet, we need shut off our laptops, rip out our internet connection and toss our smartphones? Maybe not. Some continue to argue that digital technologies will ultimately help us use energy more wisely, and there are people thinking of ways to make the internet more sustainable.

In his interview with Steve Paikin, Ron Deibert says that the answer is not to get rid of the internet, but to find ways to improve it.

“We’ve got these existential problems that we face collectively,” he says. “If we are going to solve them, we are going to need something like the internet, something like social media. We are going to need something like the devices I carry around with me in order to exchange information, to monitor ourselves and the planet.”

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