Environment and "big-tech": impacts of digital economy#

(version française : Environnement et "big-tech" : impacts de l'économie du numérique)

Numbers used in this text are from 2020.

This page aims at providing a glimpse of the stakes associated to the digital economy and information technologies with respect to environmental impact. For those who thinks that this is a very secondary topic in the fight against climate change and for a sustainable world, please read section 3 ("Big tech vs an ethical and sustainable internet").

As this is a rather broad topic, I will focus on 3 main points:

  • the importance of minding electronic hardware,

  • the impact of our internet habits and how to minimize them,

  • the nefarious influence of the GAFAM and how to escape it.

The last part notably puts forward the following thesis: the business model of the tech giants being based on advertising and material consumption, these firms are now a major driver of overconsumption in developed countries, this overconsumption being one of the main causes of our environmental impact.

This article focuses solely on the environmental aspect of the problem and does not address the political and ethical issues associated to the current digital and big-tech trends. Additional leads on these aspects are proposed at the end.

As a bonus, the "alternatives" section provides a list of solutions to take bake control of your data and your privacy and thus, at the same time, to reduce (if only a little) the influence of big tech corporations.

A "dematerialization" not so immaterial#

Contrary to what the big players in the tech industry try to sell us, the cloud weighs pretty heavily on the environment. Far from showing an ideal dematerialization of services and objects, the pas 10 years have seen the emergence of a gigantic infrastructure associated to worrying resource and energy consumptions. Worse, the internet and electronic devices in general are the sectors associated to the largest economic growth. The internet traffic, for instance grows by more than 20% per year (mean that the traffic doubles every 3 years) far ahead of... well... everything else! (thankfully, sure...) As for electronic waste (e-waste), its amount increases by 5% every year and should keep growing in the future [Robinson2009].

Though they are invisible to citizens, the giant datacenters that are necessary to answer the never-ending requests from billions of users require always more material, air-conditioning, and of course electricity.

Beyond datacenters, the understandable hype around connected devices such as watches, thermostats, smart homes, etc, led to an explosion of the IoT. If some of these devices can indeed make life easier, they primarily contribute to the escalation of resource consumption.

Finally, the lack of optimization of software run on computers and smartphones makes it necessary to get hardware with increasingly high performance, forcing users to change their devices much more often than what would otherwise be necessary. This overconsumption is of course also due to fashion effects. However, it is becoming even worse due to planned obsolescence on some platforms and the fact that OSs such as Windows or Android are becoming increasingly hungry in CPU and memory resources, forcing some people to change their devices to maintain acceptable performances. The same holds for web browsing, as the exponential growth of scripts and ads raises notably the weight and compute-time required to display a single web page.

These three tendencies (increased traffic, device number, and device turnover) lead to an ever growing extraction of material resources such as precious and rare earth metals, which has a significant environmental impact. In addition, they significantly increase the electricity demand, competing with other sectors and preventing their decarbonisation, and lead to an unprecedented generation of e-waste. This waste, which is very poorly handled, is now a major pollution issue.

It is thus important to keep in mind that, despite their happening far from the western consumer, the problems generated by the apparent "dematerialization" of services have very concrete effects, especially in southern countries where materials are extracted and a large fraction of the waste end up. For more information, see [Mmereki2015] Section 10, the recent lawsuit against tech giants regarding cobalt mining and children deaths in Africa, and the previous report from Amnesty International.

As less than 20% of e-waste is recycled, the rest, burned, sent to landfills, but also often exported, will contaminate the soil and water [Qihang2015]. As early as 2001, a report from the American Agency for Environmental Protection warned that 70% of heavy metal pollution in American landfills came from e-waste. Take the example of a smartphone, resource extraction and end-of-life management alone represent as much as 70 to 90% of the human and eco-toxicity of the product [Ercan2016].

To minimize the impact of our electronic consumption, it is therefore important to avoid as much as possible the purchase of new products, going for second-hand devices and products that can be repaired and upgraded, such as the Fairphone.

Hell of an electricity bill!#

That's right, our electronic devices and the internet now account for roughly 10% of all electricity consumption (counting only customer use, not the energy that was necessary to produce them). Knowing that 40% of this electricity comes from coal and 20% more comes from gas, this make a pretty nice amount of CO2 and air pollution! (also note that, for datacenters, the evaluation made by the companies regarding the source of their electricity is often pretty bad)

For information, the annual consumption of datacenters accounted for close to 20% of the electricity consumption of the whole digital world in 2015, cumulating 400 TWh. On the other hand, personal devices (computers, smartphones...) accounted for 40% of the consumption, with almost 900 TWh in 2015. Moreover, if datacenters were still on the lower end of the consumption four years ago, their growth is expected around 15% per year [Andrae2015]...

But what make web browsing to power hungry? That depends of course on the type of activity that one does online, but the all-round champion and main cause of resource consumption is video streaming. Streaming accounts for 3/4 of all data transfer on the internet. For an individual, the difference then comes from 3 factors:

  • the time spent watching video data

  • the quality of the the videos (HD or SD)

  • the fraction of undesired videos (ads) that will be automatically loaded while browsing (e.g. on Facebook and Twitter)

The first factor is rather obvious and does not require any additional comments. The second, however, means that, without changing the time spent on video streaming, one can easily reduce its impact by lowering the quality of the stream: thus, Netflix considers that on average watching HD videos on their site consumes 3Gb an hour. Lowering the quality to 480p makes this drop below 700Mb an hour, i.e. less than a fourth of HD. Setting the site's preferences to lower video quality is thus an easy way of reducing one's carbon footprint on the internet.

Finally, energy consumption grows notably when using cellular data (LTE/4G, and the future 5G) compared to WiFi or Ethernet connections. Whenever possible, it is thus better to prefer WiFi or cable to stream video content.

Big tech vs an ethical and sustainable internet#

Alright, might you say, the growth of the internet is indeed worrying, and its impact (especially in terms of pollution more than solely emissions) is not negligible... but it remains very far from the primary sources that needs to be urgently addressed to tackle the environmental crisis.

This is true! The impact of the internet on climate remains far behind other individual or collective targets (decarbonizing industry and electricity production, insulating buildings, decreasing the amount of individual cars and electrifying the remaining ones, increasing the proportion of meals without meat...) For more information on the priority targets, you can read:

But then, if the impact of electronics and the internet is still far behind many other issues, why talk about it? Well because besides its worrying growth rate, it is more prominently its indirect impacts and the behavioral stakes associated which, to me, constitute the main issue.

The problem#

The development of the internet has unfortunately been associated to an unprecedented concentration of power at the hands of a couple of companies, mostly known as the GAFAM, the interest of which go against the measures necessary to address the climate and environmental crises.

Indeed, the only pathway that seems reasonable to maintain global warming below the 1.5-2°C limit is for "developed countries" to drastically reduce their material and energy expenditure. This means a more calm world, less focused on consumption. However a major part of the wealth accumulated by the GAFAM (and we are talking about companies worth tens or hundreds of billions of dollars here) comes from... advertising! (see it in pictures)

Let us be clear: what I mean is that the wealth of these companies relies more or less totally on the fact that they can steal your data and use them to either show you targeted ads (Google/Alphabet, Facebook) or directly push their products on you (Amazon, Apple). Their ability to make you buy stuff is so great that other companies spend billions of dollars each year so that, "thank to" these ads, humanity keeps buying more and more.

This ads, apart from encouraging our frantic consumption, have also led to a disproportionate increase of the internet data (and therefore energy) consumption. The page Webtest.app enables users to get an idea of the impact of these ads and trackers on the weight of internet pages. What's more, the situation is even worse on platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook, where ads often use video formats and autoplay.

Add to this the fact that these companies tend to collaborate with the oil industry (cf. oil is the new data and the Polluters series from the Guardian) and you get the problem: the internet is managed by a handful of tech giants with more than doubtful practices and whose goal is to make us buy more and more while the survival our the environment as we know it relies on our ability to switch towards more sober lifestyles.

The consequences#

Because of the enormous power of these firms and of their ability to monitor, predict, and influence human behavior and markets, some thinkers now consider that we have entered a new era of capitalism: that of surveillance capitalism. In this new period, Big Oil is no longer leading the way but only fills the tank as tech giants dictate a forced march towards a future that they shape along the way.

What's more, the gigantic money fluxes associated to those firms profit neither web users nor states. The former, after they surrender their data for free, only get a service that they could get somewhere else, additionally lined with a layer of ads. The latter never manage to recover any taxes, as the GAFAM became experts in tax evasion, so all this money goes to the shareholders, increasing the inequalities that are now deeply rooted in Western societies, or is reinvested to make their data extorsion procedure even more efficient.

For more information on the global influence of these companies, either on a political (notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal), economical, or social level, you can notably read the book from Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Unfortunately, the way these companies influence our representation of the future and the surveillance, control, and consumer society that they require to prosper are incompatible with the ecological transition that we need to survive (see for instance scenarios such as the SSP1 that are aggregated in the IPCC report [IPCC_SR15_Chap2] such as the LED proposal [Grubler2018]). This transition requires major behavioral changes to occur and I see the GAFAM as one of the major hindrances to the implementation of measures that could enable us to avoid the worse.

How to escape tech giants and undermine their source of revenues?#

Because the tools the GAFAM provide are everywhere, they are often sensed as "easy-to-use", "handy", not to mention that "every body uses them". This set of belief and environment makes it difficult to escape their data extorsion procedure, all the more so for people who do not have any special interest in tech.

This is of course one of the main strategies of these firms, for instance with Google which made their services almost indispensible on Android smartphones, enabling them to spy on a colossal number of users at any point in time.

To fight against these tech giants and the control they exert over our lifes, as for the fight against the climate crisis, one must combine both individual (take back control of one's data) and collective actions (e.g. through legislation).

At the individual level, it is possible to buy in local or smaller online shops rather than on Amazon, to not use the tools from these firms on the internet. Web browsers such as Firefox for instance provide many features aimed at thwarting their spying attempts. For more details, please the "alternatives" section further down.

At intermediate levels, you can look for and support associations that are fighting for a more ethical internet such as Framasoft, or the EFF, as well as promote FOSS to schools, public services, and elected representatives in your neighborhood. Finally, you can contribute to raising awareness around you, inside political parties you adhere to (if you do) or when asked to participate to surveys, interviews, etc.

Until the legislators tackle the issue, escaping big tech's surveillance will probably remain difficult for all but the most battle-hardened and tech-savvy. Yet, picking up the habit of questioning their influence on our lives and raising awareness around us definitely is part of the solution and progressively makes change easier, one step at a time.


If the direct contribution of the internet, electronics, and information technologies to the climate crisis remains small for now, the associated environmental impact is far from negligible and the incredible growth rate of the sector makes is it a major concern.

The main problem, though, remains the way the GAFAM use the web to spy on and influence people, promoting overconsumption habits which hinder considerably (sometimes preventing entirely) any ecological transition.

Leaving the sphere of influence of the GAFAM, as hard as it may seem to some people, is thus a necessary condition if we are to escape the whirlpool of consumption in which they try to trap us. This could at the same time favor local ecosystems (bookshops, markets, craftsmen...), more ethical and humane.

To limit the (already significant) length of this article, I voluntarily focused on the environmental issues that stem from the current tech industry led by the GAFAM. However, the reasons to boycott, fight against, and regulate these firms are obviously not restricted to the environmental realm. To me, they constitute major ethical, political, and economical stakes, and I listed leads with reading material on various topics at the bottom of this page.

Alternatives to the GAFAM#

When electronics is involved, it is almost always possible to use tools that respect the values and philosophy of the open-source and libre community (FOSS). This section details some open-source and non-corporate environments but you can look for more on other websites if you don't find your match here:

Some websites and apps of the tech giants#

If you spend time on social networks or watching videos on the internet, chances are that you use mostly the "services" of the tech giants. Here are a few examples:

  • Google/Alphabet: Google (Maps, Drive...), Gmail, Chrome, Youtube, Android, Hangouts...

  • Amazon: Amazon (Prime, Music...), Kindle, Fire OS, Alexa

  • Facebook: Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram

  • Apple: Mac OS, iTunes, iPhone, Siri

  • Microsoft: Windows, LinkedIn, GitHub, Outlook, Bing, Skype, Edge...

Note that, besides these basic services, some of these firms host the majority of the big websites on the web (notably Amazon via AWS which handles 70% of global internet traffic). The main website, traffic-wise, is Netflix (hosted by Amazon), which accounts for roughly 12% of global downstream traffic.

Alternatives on your computer#

Alternatives on the web#

Search engines:

one can do a web search (and not a "Google search") via the following engines:

  • StartPage for aggregated results based on the mainstream search engines, but anonymized to prevent your data from being transmitted to them,

  • Mojeek for a purely independent English search engine which respects your privacy,

  • Qwant another independent (French) search engine which respects your privacy,

  • SearX or YaCy for the more tech-savvy.

Firefox add-ons to shake off trackers and other niceties:

Free and decentralized social networks (the Fediverse):

All these services are federated (interconnected), meaning that you can interact with the whole network, including different services, from any of these platforms... isn't that genius?

To replace Gmail (not encrypted), there are again multiple services such as:

  • Tutanota (encrypted) which power their services through electricity that is bought to renewable providers

  • ProtonMail (encrypted)

  • Mailo or Posteo (not encrypted)

For collaboration one can use:

  • collaborative writing:

  • for tasks and calendar, the NextCloud/OwnCloud calendar (CalDav) tools

  • Audio/Video-conferencing:

    • Jitsi which does not require any installation (can directly used from inside the browser) but can also be used through an app

    • BigBlueButton, similar to Jitsi but with teaching-specific dditions

    • Matrix/Element (untested)

  • Mailing lists:

If you still need to check Youtube and Twitter from time to time, you can use Invidious and Nitter to make your browsing anonymous (see also the PrivacyRedirect add-on).

Alternatives for your smartphone#

The best solution to embrace open philosophy on smartphones would be to buy an open phone such as the PinePhone or the Librem5 and/or to use a Linux OS on it, for instance Ubuntu Touch, Plasma Mobile, PostmarketOS and others. However, these solutions might still prove challenging for standard users in early 2020 and could require a few additional years before they are ready for the general public.

If you're on Android, the only way to prevent Google from tracking you all the time (even when your GPS is not activated) is to reinstall your phone from scratch using a "clean" OS (i.e. without the Gapps) such as Lineage and then to use the MicroG framework if some of your apps require Google Cloud Messaging. Unfortunately, this is a complex procedure so it will most probably be reserved for advanced user (if you feel angry about it, you should be! so please spread the word that this should not be happening!) For people who do not manage to do this, you can still try to improve some of the default setting, reduce Google location and ad tracking and use several alternate apps to limit the damage.

  • F-droid is the first necessary step to access more ethical apps which are not on the Play Store

  • AnySoftKeyboard, the free keyboard is the next thing to install to replace the Google keyboard and limit data leaks

  • Newpipe replaces Youtube and lets you play videos in the background by default

  • Maps.me and OpenMultiMaps to remplace Google Maps

  • K9 rather than Gmail

On Android and iOS, you can also use:

  • Signal to replace Whatsapp/Messenger and your SMS app (Telegram is also kind of OK but less good for privacy and is not open-source)

  • Firefox instead of Chrome or Safari

  • Silence for encrypted SMS

  • Conversations and Riot are other alternatives to Whatsapp and Messenger

If you still need to access Facebook and Twitter, you can install Frost and Twidere via F-droid.

Other websites recommending alternatives exists, if you did not find what you were looking for here, you can try TechSpot's page or Switching.software.

Additional reads#

If you want to dig deeper into the stakes associated to the current evolution of the internet and the GAFAM (especially regarding notions of ethics, democracy, or privacy), or about our consumer habits, you can look into the following resources:



Robinson B. E-waste: An assessment of global production and environmental impacts. Science of Total Environment (2009) 408:2 183-191. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.09.044


Mmereki D. et al. The Generation, Composition, Collection, Treatment and Disposal System, and Impact of E-Waste, E-Waste in Transition - From Pollution to Resource, Florin-Constantin Mihai, IntechOpen, (2016) DOI: 10.5772/61332


Wu Q. et al. Heavy metal contamination of soil and water in the vicinity of an abandoned e-waste recycling site: Implications for dissemination of heavy metals, Science of The Total Environment (2015) 506–507: 217-225, DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.10.121.


Ercan M. et al. Life Cycle Assessment of a Smartphone. Proceedings of ICT for Sustainability (2016) DOI: 10.2991/ict4s-16.2016.15


Andrae A. et al. On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030. Challenges (2015) 6:1 117-157. DOI: 10/gftvrb.


Rogelj J. et al. Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development. IPPC Report SR15, Chapitre 2 (octobre 2018) https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/


Grubler A. et al. A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy (2018) 3:6 515-527. DOI: 10/gdr4gq