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Can the Internet Kill the Earth?

Authored by Ganga Dripaul, Biomedical Engineering ‘24

Art by Chloe Cho, Human Biology, Health, and Society '26


The virtual clouds on everyone’s devices can hurt the clouds in the sky. The virtual cloud network is a system that uses wireless technology to connect servers, databases, and devices globally [1]. This network communicates between systems [1], allowing users to access websites, videos, and more on any device. In addition, cloud storage is the new norm, with 47% of the global population [2] using the cloud in some way, such as backing up photos, sending emails, and saving digital notes.


Although we think of it as a purely virtual cloud, it does have physical connections through data centers, which produce large amounts of carbon emissions. High levels of carbon emissions have been shown to cause several health problems, such as significantly increased heart rate and respiratory minute volume [3]. Though it may seem surprising that something virtual can threaten human health and the environment, this is the current reality. However, renewable energy sources can be a potential solution to reducing these harmful emissions.

The internet is a global network of interconnected computers and electronic devices [4]. Once connected, one can access almost any information, communicate with anyone, and more [4]. Users might overlook that this global network is brought to them through miles of undersea cables and routers which run on massive amounts of energy [6]. To generate electricity, fossil fuels need to be burned, which emits CO2, also known as carbon emissions [5]. All the necessary infrastructure to develop and bring the internet to users increases carbon emissions [6]. Moreover, with the internet becoming increasingly intertwined with daily life, the infrastructure to support the internet and the cloud will continue to expand. By 2030, the carbon footprint of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is expected to increase by 60% [7] and generate 150 million tons of carbon emissions [8]. As previously mentioned, data centers are the backbone of the cloud, but a single data center can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes [9]. It is evident that the internet directly contributes to increased carbon emissions and global warming.


This relationship between carbon emissions and the internet indirectly impacts residents' health. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 to 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress [10]. For instance, a study conducted in China found that heat waves due to high temperatures have significantly increased mortality rates, respiratory morbidity, and infectious diseases [3]. As of 2021, China is, by a significant margin, the world’s largest carbon emitter [10].


Carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere contributes to climate change by increasing temperatures [11]. Additionally, climate change impacts air quality, especially in highly urbanized and industrialized areas [3], which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects like asthma attacks [13]. It can also increase the number of wildfires, which further release toxic air pollutants [13]. Climate change can also have indirect health effects, as increased carbon emissions increase the frequency or severity of extreme weather events [13]. This can potentially reduce the availability of safe food and drinking water [13], particularly in rural areas with unbalanced access to medical resources [3]. In addition to physical health, unsafe weather conditions can create or worsen depression, PTSD, and other mental health aspects [13]. In all, carbon emissions pose a significant threat to society’s overall health and well-being.

Although there is much at risk, it is not a hopeless situation. Due to the increased energy usage as cloud computing centers expand and develop, green computing has been discussed to improve cloud computing’s energy efficiency [6]. Green computing seeks to reduce energy consumption and lower carbon emissions to limit the harmful impact on the environment [14] and by extension, limit the detrimental effects on people. One way to do this is to make data centers, server rooms, and data storage facilities more energy-efficient using renewable energy sources. Some regions currently have renewable energy sources, but a vast majority still rely on fossil fuels [7]. However, large corporations like Google have started the transition to renewable energy and have plans to achieve 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030 [15]. With wind and solar energy powering centers in Europe and South America and batteries being used as backup power in Belgium [15], Google appears to be following through with this goal so far. The main benefits of renewable energy are the little to complete lack of carbon emissions and air and water pollutants that pose a risk to human health [16]. Finally, as energy is one of the highest costs to maintain a data center [17], switching to renewable energy can save money in the long run; renewable energy is the cheapest form of power today [18].


The effects of carbon emissions from non-renewable energy sources continue to endanger people’s lives and homes. Even an unsuspecting system, such as the internet, that 5.16 billion people rely on [19], can play a role in climate change. Climate change poses severe dangers to human health in less than ten years, but switching data centers to run on clean, renewable energy can mitigate these oncoming consequences. Although Earth’s future seems bleak, finding and employing sustainable solutions can rescue society from a dire fate.


Works Cited


  1. (n.d.). What is a virtual cloud network? (plus how they work). Indeed. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/virtual-cloud-network

  2. (n.d.). 25 Amazing Cloud Adoption Statistics [2023]: Cloud Migration, Computing, And More. (n.d.). Zippia. https://www.zippia.com/advice/cloud-adoption-statistics/#:~:text=There%20are%20over%203.6%20billion

  3. Dong, H., Xue, M., Xiao, Y., & Liu, Y. (2021). Do carbon emissions impact the health of residents? Considering China’s industrialization and urbanization. Science of the Total Environment, 758, 143688. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143688

  4. (n.d.). Internet Basics: What Is the Internet? GCFGlobal, edu.gcfglobal.org/en/internetbasics/what-is-the-internet/1/#.

  5. World Nuclear Association. (n.d.). Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Electricity. World Nuclear Association. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/carbon-dioxide-emissions-from-electricity.aspx#:~:text=Over%2040%25%20of%20energy%2Drelated,not%20produce%20any%20CO2.

  6. Chen, Y., Yang, W., & Hu, Y. (2022). Internet Development, Consumption Upgrading and Carbon Emissions—An Empirical Study from China. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(1), 265. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20010265

  7. Agarwal, A., Agarwal, K., & Misra, G. (2020). Is Internet becoming a Major Contributor for Global warming – The Online Carbon Footprint!! December 2020, 02(04), 217–220. https://doi.org/10.36548/jitdw.2020.4.005

  8. Xu, M., & Buyya, R. (2020). Managing renewable energy and carbon footprint in multi-cloud computing environments. Journal of Parallel and Distributed Computing, 135, 191–202. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpdc.2019.09.015

  9. Monserrate, S. G. (2022, February 14). The Staggering Ecological Impacts of Computation and the Cloud. The MIT Press Reader. https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-staggering-ecological-impacts-of-computation-and-the-cloud/

  10. World Health Organization: WHO. (2019, August 9). Climate change. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/health-topics/climate-change#tab=tab_1

  11. Ritchie, H., Roser, M., & Rosado, P. (2020, May 11). CO2 Emissions. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions#:~:text=China%20is%2C%20by%20a%20significant

  12. Change, N. G. C. (2022, December). Carbon Dioxide. Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/#:~:text=Key%20Takeaway%3A

  13. Climate Impacts on Human Health. (n.d.). EPA: United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://climatechange.chicago.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-human-health#ref1

  14. IBM Cloud Education. (2022, April 19). What Is Green Computing? IBM. https://www.ibm.com/cloud/blog/green-computing

  15. (2022, April 21). Clean energy projects begin to power Google data centers. Google Cloud Blog. https://cloud.google.com/blog/topics/sustainability/clean-energy-projects-begin-to-power-google-data-centers

  16. (2017, December 20). Benefits of Renewable Energy Use. Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/benefits-renewable-energy-use

  17. (n.d.). Data Centers and Servers. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. https://www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/data-centers-and-servers

  18. (2022, July 13). Renewables: Cheapest form of power. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/renewables-cheapest-form-power#:~:text=Renewables%20are%20the%20cheapest%20form

  19. Petrosyan, A. (2023, February 14). Internet and social media users in the world 2023. Retrieved from Statista website: https://www.statista.com/statistics/617136/digital-population-worldwide/#:~:text=As%20of%20January%202023%2C%20there

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