It can be mind-boggling thinking of the ways your internet usage emits carbon into the atmosphere. For example, streaming a Netflix show for one hour is like driving a gas car for one mile. Training an AI like ChatGPT uses an estimated 1.3 gigawatt hours — the amount of energy 120 U.S. homes use in a year (and that’s just what it took to train ChatGPT, not what it emits when you actually use it). A video call on Zoom can emit up to 1,000 grams of carbon per hour but switching to audio-only can reduce this by 96%.
What about other solutions? Are there ways you can look out for the environment while using the web? Should the onus be on us or big tech?
This year, through Mozilla’s Technology Fund, we’re funding projects that focus on the intersection of AI and climate justice. But even if you aren’t building tech to save the planet, are there things you can do right now? We spoke with Michelle Thorne — formerly of Mozilla Foundation, currently of Green Web Foundation — about what can be done right now.
Michelle spent years leading Mozilla’s sustainability program. In her words, the internet is, “the largest coal-powered machine on the planet,” Michelle says. “It produces more emissions than the aviation industry. If we talk about the ways the internet should be healthy, we have to talk about how it can be sustainable as well.”
We asked Michelle what it would take to minimize the threat our internet usage poses to the planet. Here’s where she thinks we should start:
What can companies do?
Michelle wants to see companies take action but also take things a step further. “Companies that do well have to do more than the minimum when it comes to reporting and mitigation,” says Michelle. “They have to really reach out to their governments and say, ‘regulate us more.’ It’s hard to compete with other companies if you’re one of the few that wants to do good but your competition doesn’t have to. There’s a chance there to demand higher standards.”
What can government do?
In addition to companies taking steps to address climate change on a massive scale, governments should take action here too. According to Michelle, policy makers need to continue to center the people. “Government needs to be in tune with the citizenry, especially the folks protesting and speaking out,” she says. “For example, that can look like government saying we need to have a data-informed conversation about digitization and the trade-offs. Right now, many governments tend to talk about the upside, but they aren’t helping citizenry make an informed decision about whose needs are getting prioritized.”
What can individual people do?
It’s the classic debate: why should I do anything when companies, governing bodies and other institutions carry the biggest impact on the environment? Before you quit recycling, here’s what Michelle thinks you should do. “It can feel daunting, like something any one person does is just a drop in the ocean,” says Michelle. “There are definitely small behaviors we can do to change but really what we can do is build collective power. We can work in our communities and with others who want to see change happen and individually work together to put pressure on governments, on companies and other groups that tend to be more responsible for the crisis we’re in.”
You can learn more about the internet’s carbon impact here. Subscribe to our newsletter here for updates in the coming months from the Technology Fund on climate justice projects and other ideas for keeping our internet usage green.