When we think about pollution, what usually springs to mind are images like those of a car’s exhaust pipe, factories with chimneys expelling a thick black smoke or an ocean invaded by plastics. However, many of us may not be aware of the enormous impact that the internet has on the environment. Behind webpages on the screens of our devices, there is an industry that demands huge amounts of energy; harmful emissions are being released into the atmosphere in order to keep the networks many of us rely on fully operational.
In order to find anything that we are looking for on the internet, information needs to be stored by search engines in what we call ‘The Cloud’. Despite the fluffy name, the cloud is in fact a physical space – data centres.
Data centres host millions of servers that allow, among other things, the recording, transmission, and calculation of data to be transmitted by the various digital devices that are currently used today (smartphone, computer, tablets, smart TVs, etc). These data centres are getting increasingly larger, needing to store all the information that flows through the internet and remain working on a 24/7 basis – all of which entails a great energy cost for operation and cooling. In 2017, global data centres used 416 terawatts, or 416 trillion watts, of energy; 3% of the worldwide total electricity consumption – nearly 40% more than the entirety of the United Kingdom (Forbes, 2017).
To make the problem worse, many countries that house these data centres are located in countries that still rely heavily on non-renewable energy sources, like fossil fuels. For instance, 40% of hyperscale data centres (where computers are able to scale hugely and quickly in order to respond to increasing demand), are located in the United States (Statista, 2018) and the biggest concentration of data centres in the world is also in the United States, mainly in the state of Virginia (Loudoun, 2019).This is bad news for the environment. In June 2017, Donald Trump left the Paris agreements to unleash business growth in the United States, one of the reasons being the obligations regarding the use of non-renewable energies. He stated:
“At 1 percent growth, renewable sources of energy can meet some of our domestic demand, but at 3 or 4 percent growth, which I expect, we need all forms of available American energy, or our country will be at grave risk of brownouts and blackouts, our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life”. (White House, 2017)
However, industry tech leaders did not approve of Trump’s thinking (Data Centre Dynamics, 2017), and have been looking for innovative solutions in order to reduce their energy consumption, such as “free cooling”, the newest sustainable trend in the IT sector. It consists of using ambient air outside the data centres, rather than air conditioning, to cool the electronic equipment. Internet giants, such as the famous GAFA, use it in northern European countries such as Iceland or Scandinavia, where ambient temperatures and humidity naturally provide good cooling throughout the year. Microsoft had an even more extensive idea: plunge a data centre into the deep cold waters of the North Sea, North of Scotland. Coined Project Natick, it has been successfully running for one year; 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers powered by renewable energy and cooled by the sea (Microsoft, 2018).
But IT companies aside, is it possible for us to use the internet more responsibly?
More than 281 billion emails are sent and received every day in the world (Statista, 2019). According to the Carbon Literacy Project, the average carbon footprint of a standard email is 4g of CO2, meaning that 1,124 trillion grams of CO2 are released in a single day as a result of emailing. But there are ways to reduce your email carbon footprint, such as keeping only the necessary emails, unsubscribe from useless newsletters, compress attachments and send photos in low resolution and limit the number of recipients when sending an email.
Furthermore, every hour, more than 228 million searches are made on Google (SEO Tribunal, 2018). According to Harvard researcher Dr. Wissner-Gross, each Google query emits 7 grams of CO2 (The New York Times, 2009). Thus, in one hour, the CO2 emitted by the google searches of the whole world is equal to over 1,5 billion grams. In order to cut down on emissions, some simple steps can be followed here too; sites you visit frequently can be saved as ‘favourites’, avoiding having to search first to find them. Furthermore, responsible search engines which offsets carbon emissions can be used, for example Lilo who finance social and environmental projects, or Ecosia which plants a tree every 7 seconds.
What can be concluded is that the Internet uses more resources and pollutes more than many of us assume. However, companies that host data centres are progressively coming up with solutions to offset the ecological impact, and Internet users are being provided with more ways they can reduce their numerical carbon footprint. But, will these efforts be enough to ensure a sustainable future for the internet?
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