It is easy to assume that using a computer at home or surfing the internet on a laptop costs next to no energy, but the truth could not be more different. In two separate recent studies, the internet was shown to be responsible for emitting 300 million tonnes of CO2 each year; as much as all the fossil fuels burned in Poland; and more than half of the fossil fuels burned here in the UK.
The ‘internet’ is technically all of the computers, including yours, connected at any given moment to the World Wide Web (www). As it is impossible to know just how much time one spends offline or online, estimates of the internet’s exact energy consumption can never be known, but most calculations, such as the one above, rely on a 50/50 split of online / offline PC usage.
It is relatively straightforward to calculate personal CO2 emissions for internet usage. Latest published figures show that there are 1.9 billion regular internet users in the world. The annual CO2 emissions for each user is therefore 300,000,000,000 kg’s divided by 1,900,000,000 users = 157 kg’s CO2 per annum. If we assume that each user accesses the internet 7 days per week 365 days per year, then the daily CO2 emissions for an average user is:
157 kg’s / 365 days = 0.43 kg’s per day.
0.43 kg’s of CO2 does not sound a great deal, but it is sufficient to boil a full kettle of water approximately five times. Perhaps of greater interest here, however, is the comparison of this figure to a printed product.
As readers of the FOPAP website will have learned, it is our assertion that the carbon contained in paper products is sufficient to offset the energy costs of manufacturing and printing on it, as the paper does not decay in landfill and therefore its carbon ought to be allowed as a credit against these processes. However, for the purposes of comparing internet emissions to printing emissions in the scenario presented here, we will ignore this advantage for now and account only for CO2 emissions related to manufacturing the paper, printing on it and delivering it to a given destination.
Let us consider a print run of 5,000 copies of an A4 full colour double sided leaflet printed on a reasonable quality paper. The CO2 emissions for such a printed product would equate to approximately 100 kg’s. Therefore, the CO2 emissions per copy are:
100 kg’s divided by 5,000 copies = 0.02 kg’s per copy.
This is c. 20x less than the emissions associated with one day of internet usage, which, in constant usage terms, would equate to perhaps 2 or 3 hours. If we assume 3 hours constant usage, one sheet of printed product possesses the same CO2 footprint as 9 minutes internet usage time. Moreover, if the print run were extended to 100,000 copies, the CO2 footprint per copy would drop to 0.13 kg’s, or 32x less than 3 hours internet use, equivalent to just 5.5 minutes online.
The CO2 emissions from spending 5 ½ minutes on the internet are equivalent to a full colour paper leaflet of size A4 printed and delivered to your door.
There are, of course, benefits associated with each medium. The internet is readily accessible and can be searched quickly and easily to retrieve a vast amount of information and knowledge. Conversely, the printed medium is more transportable. It can be taken from room to room and filed for instant retrieval; moreover, it can be retrieved an unlimited amount of times for exactly zero CO2 emissions. It is durable, reliable, tactile and accessible – for both internet and non-internet users. It also has a shelf life vastly greater than 5 ½ minutes!
Perhaps the greatest benefit of all, however, is the one that we have completely ignored for this comparison – the chemistry of the printed product itself. The carbon in the paper was once resident in the atmosphere but is now safely locked up in the fibres of the product itself. What is more, the ink that has been applied to it now protects it from bacterial intrusion and decomposition – extending its life greatly underground which is, of course, its ultimate destination. And here it will stay a very, very long time indeed, helping to reduce atmospheric CO2 and slow down the effects of global warming.
Learn more about how paper acts as a 'carbon sink'