Every-time you take out your smartphone and the screen switches into life, every-time you hit a key on your laptop keyboard, stream a film, order from Just Eat and do anything remotely linked up to the internet, you trigger a chain of actions that encircle the globe.
A signal shoots around the world at lightning fast speed, navigating countries, bouncing off satellites and across several computer servers in order to literally ‘serve’ up the next film, app, or tinder profile to your phone.
It’s the ripple effect that ties the online world together and we are addicted to it. Since smartphones arrived on the scene, thrust into popular imagination by the world-changing iPhone in 2007, we have grown increasingly addicted to the little computers that we carry around in our pockets. And it’s a very real energy source that powers our digital lives.
But like all addictions it’s difficult for us to ascertain the true consequences of our actions. It’s difficult for us to understand the impact that our online behaviours have because we can’t see them. What seems benign could, potentially, be having a devastating impact on the environment and only when we take a closer look can we really understand the factors at play.
Our Invisible Online Carbon Emissions
The Internet is powered by energy from the real world, from the incineration of fossil fuels, to a large extent, that sends power surging through the internet’s physical infrastructure. This also includes the delivery of data, the energy demands of software, hardware and huge, hidden data centre’s around the world owned by companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
Just how much energy this infrastructure uses up is difficult to quantify but the U.S. Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab attempted to do this, for the US at least, when in 2016 it reported:
In 2014, data centers in the U.S. consumed an estimated 70 billion kWh, representing about 1.8 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. Current study results show data center electricity consumption increased by about 4 percent from 2010-2014, a large shift from the 24 percent increase estimated from 2005-2010 and the nearly 90 percent increase estimated from 2000-2005. Energy use is expected to continue slightly increasing in the near future, increasing 4 percent from 2014-2020, the same rate as the past five years. Based on current trend estimates, U.S. data centers are projected to consume approximately 73 billion kWh in 2020.
You might be forgiven for thinking… so what? And that’s understandable. After all, we would immediately equate using our smartphone with tall chimney stacks blowing out dirty coal smoke into the Earth’s environment but that’s exactly what is happening.
The internet, including all aspects of its energy requirement from powering warehouses of computer servers to the smartphone in your pocket, is estimated to produce the same amount of carbon as the global aviation industry. This report, from nature.com highlights:
For now, despite rising demand for data, ICT’s electricity consumption is staying nearly flat, as increased Internet traffic and data loads are countered by increased efficiencies — including shuttering older facilities. But those easy wins could end within a decade.
Renewable energy, though making massive strides, is set to reach a 22.5% share of the global power mix in 2020. Given that the renewables share was just 8.6% in 2010 this represents a substantial uptick in the transition to a renewable energy power base.
However it still means that just under 80% of the global energy mix is still dominated by traditional energy generation, including a significant proportion of carbon emitting fossil fuel plants. And herein lies the difficulty of tackling the internet’s climate change emissions. When the effects of our online actions are hidden from view, it can be difficult for people and societies to grasp the substantial change that needs to happen in order to reduce them.
Energy Use of the Internet to Soar
This is an environmental problem that is only set to get worse.
The Guardian Newspaper reports by 2025 a Tsunami of data could consume one fifth of global electricity arguing that billions of internet connected devices could produce 3.5% of global emissions within 10 years and 14% by 2040.
This bleak assessment predicts that soaring energy demands from our countless array of devices will hammer attempts by countries around the world to meet ambitious climate change targets.
Although it’s believed that efficiencies can be made to reduce wasted energy from new data centres springing up around the world the sheer volume of energy required means that fossil fuel plants may have to kept open longer to power gaps in energy provision and to ensure the lights are kept on as new data centres are brought online.
Greening the Internet
Once the scale of the problem is understood and the priorities for reducing the carbon footprint of the internet is integrated at a global level than policy-makers and companies can start to make steps to ensure that their online infrastructures, policies and procedures are evolved into a greener state of being.
But it’s not just the type of energy we use that needs to complete change. The very physical materials that are used in all types of IT equipment from server towers, to laptops and smartphones. Circuity, screen chemicals, lithium ion batteries and the graphite that helps to compose them, once disposed of, can be incredibly polluting to the environment.
With many toxic substances and a high turnover due to the capitalist machine driving demand and production we need to make sure the proper recycling facilities are in place to manage the huge amounts of recycled gadgetry that would otherwise be left in the natural environment.
Many of the large tech companies are taking their responsibilities to green the internet very seriously. In Apple’s 2018 Environmental Responsibility Report company set out it’s green agenda:
More than a decade ago, we started to transition our electricity use to renewable sources. Today, we’re proud to power 100 percent of our operations around the world with 100 percent renewable energy. That means every Apple data center, retail store, corporate office and colocation facility in 43 countries around the world now runs on clean power.
Microsoft has taken this commitment one step further, announcing in 2020 that it will remove “all of the carbon” from the environment that the company has emitted since 1975. And they want to do it by 2050. This promise is outlined in the official Microsoft blog:
While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so. That’s why today we are announcing an ambitious goal and a new plan to reduce and ultimately remove Microsoft’s carbon footprint.
By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”
To be carbon negative a company must commit to removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases into it and they can do this through a number of technologies, including carbon capture and storage.
To help improve our awareness of just how big the carbon problem is, Microsoft have produced this explainer video:
The Role of Renewables
Renewables are at the heart of solving the internets environment problem. They provide the foundations on which to build a greener, kinder and more environmentally respectful internet for everyone. And one that can last forever, without the burden of exacerbating climate change hanging over it.
Apple is completely powered by renewable energy (though that doesn’t take into account the ways in which it’s products are powered by their customers).
Microsoft will shift to 100% renewable energy by 2025 for their data centers, buildings and campuses. They will also work to ensure that all of their vehicles are electric and their ambitious goal to soak up all the carbon their company has emitted in it’s lifetime will set a gold standard for other companies to follow suite.
Whilst these commitments don’t directly change the behaviour of the customers of these companies they do send a very clear message.
We all have a responsibility to act as consumers, to consider the environmental impact of our gadgets and to take steps to reduce that impact in a meaningful way. Most countries with a developed power mix in their electricity systems will have the options for consumers to choose renewable sources of power.
Organisations such as Climeworks are even offering individuals the ability to capture CO2 direct from the air allowing consumers to offset their flights and other carbon emitting activities.
Other companies like GreenGeeks, advertised throughout this site, provide anyone who owns a website with the ability to make sure their site is powered by renewable technology. And, like Microsoft, are going above and beyond the carbon neutral aim. By making a commitment to provide more than 3 times the amount of energy they use from renewable sources, GreenGeeks is a carbon negative company. They state:
We work with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) in Portland, Oregon. “BEF” is also a recognized Green Power Partner by the U.S. EPA and they work with wind farms. We tell BEF how many servers, personnel, etc. that we have and they calculate our yearly energy consumption and carbon footprint. We then have BEF purchase from the wind farms 3 times as much wind energy than we have consumed, and we put that energy back into the grid. This offsets the energy we consume as well as 2 other companies our size, which makes GreenGeeks and our customers’ websites CARBON NEGATIVE.”
Carbon neutral: A carbon neutral company is a company that has promised to add no carbon to the atmosphere. This might be through the use of renewables, offsetting emissions by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere (i.e. tree planting).
Carbon negative: Is when a company will actually remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. To do this it must go above and beyond the emissions level of it’s own activity in order to absorb additional carbon. This might be through carbon capture, tree planting or, as GreenGeeks has done, by producing more renewable energy that it uses.
The internet has revolutionised the world. It has changed the fundamentals of how humans interact with each other and it is continuing to evolve and mature. The influence of huge companies like Facebook, Apple and Microsoft represent a massive shift in both the way we consumer data but also the potential influences at play.
Some have argued that we are creating a dangerous experiment in which a whole generation of people are addicted to the bright little screens they carry around everywhere and that companies, like Google and Facebook, control a disproportionate amount of data about their users which can than be manipulated by organisations trying to exert power over elections.
But there are also huge technological advances happening the world over. We can communicate and collaborate in a way like never before which has massively accelerated the advancement of technology, science, medicine e.t.c.
We might not yet completely understand the role of the internet in the politics and social sphere. The platforms we use on a daily basis may be having social or mental health consequences we won’t necessarily know about for years to come.
What we do understand explicitly, however, are the energy requirements of the internet. It’s environmental impacts across energy use, infrastructure, gadgetry and waste are easily understood and that’s because the internet is a product of the Information Technology sector. And if the people over in the IT department are experts in one thing its the measurement, recording, quantification and analysis of data.
Apple and Microsoft are sending out a clear call to the rest of the industry and, taking into account their influence and political clout, it’s likely that others will embrace a move towards carbon negativity.
The question for individuals, politicians and society at large is whether we can all follow this lead to cut our soaring online emissions, take up the carbon negativity challenge and evolve our online world into a greener place that respects and protects the natural world we call home.