The growing environmental impact of digital technology

Indicators that will double or even triple by 2025

Every year, digital technology consumes 10% of the world's electricity, uses 1,000 billion liters of water and releases 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the equivalent of global air traffic [1],[2]. The digitalization of our society and industry is only accelerating this unbridled growth. By 2025, these indicators are expected to double or even triple [1]. Every two days, we produce as much information as between prehistoric times and 2003. To top it off, the amount of digital data generated doubles every 18 months. In 2037, if nothing changes, computers will consume more electricity than the world will produce.

To understand such an impact, let's first define digital. It is the set of electrical and electronic equipment such as computers, laptops, smartphones, televisions, connected watches, etc. Its environmental impact stems from the manufacture, use and recycling of devices. But in practice, how is this digital pollution generated?

Manufacturing, the most polluting stage

Manufacturing is the most polluting step, representing at least 70% of the device's GHG. The MIPS unit (Material per unit per service) characterizes the ratio of raw materials used to obtain a finished electronic product. The MIPS of a smartphone is about 1100 (183 kg of raw materials used for 180g of finished product). The MIPS of a laptop is 350, that is 850 kg of raw materials for 2.5 kg of finished product. Let us remember that the MIPS of the digital industry is the highest of all industries [3].

Secondly, the use of equipment also contributes to the environmental impact. We have the impression that all our digital activity is virtual and dematerialized. But this is not true. Advertising for new technologies is misleading: it evokes the immaterial with the word virtual or the ethereal with the word Cloud. We quickly forget the millions of computers, the thousands of data centers and the millions of kilometers of optical fiber used to send even a simple email. Behind the dematerialized appearance of the Cloud, lies a very physical reality.

A very physical reality behind our "virtual" activity

In the use of equipment, the main sources of pollution come from the infrastructures and data centers used to ensure the hyperavailability of content on the Internet. In 2019, there were more than 1.3 million kilometers of undersea fiber optic cables, 32 times around the planet [4]! They connect thousands of data centers around the world. On average, an email travels 15,000 km before reaching its recipient!

A data center is a warehouse in which computer servers are installed to manage the flow of data on the Internet. They store company data, documents on the Cloud, messages on social networks, facilitate searches on websites or direct an email to its recipient. The servers, being switched on non-stop to ensure hyperavailability, overheat and require constant cooling. This represents 40% of a data center's electricity consumption. A single air conditioner would be enough to cool 50 hotel rooms! [5]. But data centers are full of them. On average, the power consumption of a data center is ten times higher than that of a residential building. In 2013, American data centers consumed 91 billion kWh, or 34 giant power plants (500 MW). In 2020, European data centers will consume 104 billion kWh with a growth of 5% per year [6]. On the other hand, the term Cloud only refers to all data centers worldwide. Keeping a document on the Cloud is in fact the same as keeping it on a server. Finally, the pollution of data centers comes mainly from the consumption of electricity of fossil origin.

Here are three examples of our daily uses of the Cloud and digital technology that have an environmental impact:

  • Sending an email is equivalent to releasing an average of 7g of CO2. But 10 billion emails are sent every hour. In France, the environmental footprint of a 100-person company that receives an average of 58 emails per day and sends 33 of them with an average size of 1 MB is equivalent to 13 Paris-New York round-trip flights. [2]
  • Online videos are responsible for 1% of global CO2 emissions, equivalent to all of Spain's emissions in 2018. [7]
  • In France, internet boxes left on account for 1% of national electricity consumption. [8]

Too little recycling

Finally, less than 20% of electronic devices are not recycled. Recycling is currently too complex and expensive to be profitable. And yet, it is estimated that one third of the world's gold reserves are in our landfills!

Despite its great environmental impact, digital pollution remains unknown. The marketing of the Internet giants does its job well. Mobile applications, which we are addicted to, prevent us from asking the right questions. The ridiculously low price of cloud storage doesn't help. And, above all, there is no local or international legislation to control this sector.

What are the solutions?

So, how to deal with this pollution? First, it is essential to raise awareness in society, governments and industry. This is the first step to implement an effective solution acceptable to all. Secondly, we must limit the use of the cloud to a strict minimum, for example by backing up documents and emails locally. Then, renew our screens, computers and televisions as little as possible. If necessary, we should buy reconditioned equipment. Finally, to achieve true carbon neutrality, it is fundamental to take this pollution into account and to put in place performance indicators that monitor it, both at home and at work. An internationally recognized certificate would further motivate the industry.

Let's remember that the Cloud is indeed a cloud, but a cloud of CO2!


  1. GreenIT website - Global environmental footprint of digital technology
  2. Document from ADEME (French Environment and Energy Management Agency) - Practical guide to the hidden face of digital technology
  3. Book "Digital Sobriety" - Frédérique Bordage - September 2019
  4. Video from "Arte" - The hidden map - Underwater cables, the invisible war - 14/04/2018
  5. Web article - - Internet the biggest polluter on the planet - 11/09/2020.
  6. Web article - - "Tsunami of data" could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025. 11/12/2017.
  7. Web article - VerdaMano - Digital pollution, are we talking about it? July 2019.
  8. According to Françoise Berthoud, engineer at CNRS and founder of EcoInfo.