Calculating the pollution cost of website analytics (Part 2)

Every time you access a webpage that is using Google Analytics, about 22 KB of data is sent to Google. If we estimate that there are 500 million pages being accessed every day then that’s about 4 million GB of data per year. We’d need to plant 1,656 trees to deal with the pollution.

However, data transmission is just the tip of the pollution iceberg for Google Analytics. Processing is another pollution cost. We estimate that Google Analytics demands 0.288 seconds of processing on a person’s device for each page that is accessed. 2018 figures from the UK government estimate that 0.28 kg of CO2 is created per kWh. Thus, the processing for Google Analytics on user devices causes 7,665 kg of CO2 pollution per year, requiring the planting of a further 767 trees to offset it.

Storage is the next area to look at and its pollution impact may surprise you. We estimate that each of the 50 million websites will create 1 MB of analytics data each day. That would be about 18 million GB of data a year. According to 2019 analysis of cloud storage pricing by HubStor, the average price per GB for premium cloud storage is 15 cents per GB per month.

It is difficult to isolate the pure energy costs here. Let’s say that 90% of the price covers profits, investment, operating and maintenance costs. (These costs, of course, require energy in order to build and equip and staff the data center, but that’s another story.) That gives us an estimate of 12 cents for storing 1 GB of data for one year. Thus the cost of energy to store 18 million GB of data is $2,190,000. US average commercial electricity rates are about 13 cents per Kilowatt hour, according to Choose Energy. That would mean that about 17 million kWh per year are required for such storage, creating 4.7 million kg of CO2. We’d need to plant 470,000 trees to deal with that sort of pollution.

There are about three trillion trees in the world, according research by Thomas Crowther, a professor at Yale. Since the beginning of human civilization, the global number of trees has fallen by about 46%. We lose 15 billion trees a year, according to Time magazine, and plant five billion, according to Tentree, giving us a net loss of 10 billion.

So much about digital is about hidden costs, indirect pollution. The Google Analytics websites are accessed by people using smartphones, laptops, etc. I’ve chosen what I believe is a conservative average cost for all these devices of $450. I’m assuming that each device is kept for three years. Thus, the yearly cost is $150 and the hourly cost is about 5 cents (assuming that these devices are used eight hours a day). I’m allocating just 10% or 0.5 cents of this cost to energy.

Google Analytics takes up 0.288 seconds of time per page, but some of this time is happening in the background as stuff is getting processed. Let’s say that just half of this time is affecting the actual time it takes to download the page. That gives us 0.144 seconds. Let’s say people are looking at an average of 10 pages per day. That gives us 1.44 seconds, which is about 9 minutes for a year. With 50 million devices, that creates 80,769 kg of CO2 per year, requiring another 8,077 trees to be planted.

As Google Analytics Turns 10, We Ask: How Many Websites Use It? Matt McGee, Marketing Land, 2015

Which is the most important device you use to connect to the internet, at home or elsewhere?

Greenhouse gas reporting: conversion factors 2018, GOV.UK

The definitive guide to cloud storage pricing, HubStor, 2019

US average domestic electricity rate is 13.19 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).

US commercial electricity rates by state – the U.S. average is 12.69 cents per kilowatt hour

The United Nations Global E-waste Monitor 2017: Quantities, Flows, and Resources, United Nations, 2017

American trash: How an e-waste sting uncovered a shocking betrayal, Colin Lecher, The Verge, 2019

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
Listen to episodes