The cookies of the million most visited websites produce more than 11,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per month

17 February 2022
BSC participates in the Carbolytics project, by the artist and researcher Joana Moll, which seeks to visualize the energy impact of Internet cookies.

The Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) participates in the Carbolytics project, which seeks to investigate the ecological footprint of the ecosystem of advertising technology (AdTech for its acronym in English), of which the best known are advertising cookies. Tracking and recording users’ behavior has become a major business model in the last decade. This is the collection of data about users' online activities, such as reading news, purchasing items, interacting on social media or simply doing an online research.

The artist and researcher Joana Moll is responsible for Carbolytics and aims to draw attention to the social but also environmental costs of the data collection carried out by these corporations. And it is that elements such as cookies are energy consumers and therefore have an ecological and economic cost for the user.

Analysis of the cookies of the million most visited websites in the world

The BSC has recorded and analyzed the data obtained after accessing the million most visited websites in the world. Fernando Cucchietti and Patricio Reyes, researchers from the Data pre and post processing group, used an automatic browser to access all these pages and accept all cookies. They calculated the electricity it costs to move these cookies over the Internet from servers to users' devices, taking into account the number of people who visit each of these sites per month, and estimated the global energy cost of telecommunications. Finally, they converted this energy estimate into its CO2 emissions equivalent.

And these are the data: the research has identified more than 21 million cookies per unique visit to all these websites, belonging to more than 1,200 different companies, which means an average of 197 billion cookies per month, which translates in approximately 11,440 metric tons of CO2 emissions per month. This is the equivalent of the monthly emission of a Spanish city of about 28,000 inhabitants. This number reflects browser-based cookie traffic and does not include other application tracking activities, so this number is estimated to be much higher.

Joana Moll, responsible of the project: “These numbers, although they seem small compared to other industries, represent only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger ecosystem. The online advertising industry is the main business model for the Internet and for large companies in the IT sector, such as Google or Facebook. The collection of data in the user's browser through cookies is only a minuscule percentage compared to the algorithmic data management necessary for the online advertising industry to function. Sadly, we do not have access to this data and the companies do not provide it, with which the environmental impact of these processes is absolutely opaque and impossible to regulate”.

This research has taken shape in Carbolytics, an interactive web-based facility that shows average global cookie traffic in real time.

The project was presented yesterday 16 in Slovenia. Carbolytics has been commissioned by Aksioma, Institute of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana (Slovenia), within the framework of konS, a platform for contemporary art research, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia and the European Regional Development Fund of the EU; and in