The world wide web of carbon: Toward a relational footprinting of information and communications technology's climate impacts

Anne Pasek, Hunter Vaughan, Nicole Starosielski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The climate impacts of the information and communications technology sector—and Big Data especially—is a topic of growing public and industry concern, though attempts to quantify its carbon footprint have produced contradictory results. Some studies argue that information and communications technology's global carbon footprint is set to rise dramatically in the coming years, requiring urgent regulation and sectoral degrowth. Others argue that information and communications technology's growth is largely decoupled from its carbon emissions, and so provides valuable climate solutions and a model for other industries. This article assesses these debates, arguing that, due to data frictions and incommensurate study designs, the question is likely to remain irresolvable at the global scale. We present six methodological factors that drive this impasse: fraught access to industry data, bottom-up vs. top-down assessments, system boundaries, geographic averaging, functional units, and energy efficiencies. In response, we propose an alternative approach that reframes the question in spatial and situated terms: A relational footprinting that demarcates particular relationships between elements—geographic, technical, and social—within broader information and communications technology infrastructures. Illustrating this model with one of the global Internet's most overlooked components—subsea telecommunication cables—we propose that information and communications technology futures would be best charted not only in terms of quantified total energy use, but in specifying the geographical and technical parts of the network that are the least carbon-intensive, and which can therefore provide opportunities for both carbon reductions and a renewed infrastructural politics. In parallel to the politics of (de)growth, we must also consider different network forms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBig Data and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2023


  • Information and communications technology
  • carbon footprinting
  • energy
  • infrastructure
  • networks

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Information Systems and Management
  • Library and Information Sciences


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