Thesis #8

Cloud computing is heating the planet

At first sight, our network devices seem to be much more energy-efficient than the PC monsters of the past. And so — and the level of the individual device — they are. But that’s not the whole picture. Our networked world, with its ubiquitous mobile connectivity, is only possible because most of the computing and data-storage required now takes place in the ‘cloud’ — that strange, fuzzy metaphorical space which is actually made up of huge server farms situated all over the planet. Each server farm has many thousands of PCs, and they are energy hogs because the servers have to be powered and the heat that they generate has to be dissipated in some way, usually by air-conditioning.

At the moment (2017) about 7 per cent of the world’s electricity consumption is taken by this digital ecosystem. It’s forecast to rise to 12 per cent by 2020 and is expected to grow annually at about 7 per cent through to 2030 — which is double the anticipated growth in electricity supply over the same period.

The energy consumption of our networked ecosystem breaks down like this:

34% is consumed by devices

29% by networks – local and global

21% by server farms

16% by manufacture of equipment

Everything we do on our networked devices that involves an interaction with the Cloud — uploading a photo, say, sending an email, doing a Google search, browsing a website, watching a Netflix movie — has a carbon footprint. The electricity needed to do it has to be generated somehow, and at the moment most of that energy doesn’t come from renewable sources (though this is changing).

What can we do to reduce our online carbon footprint? Reducing our consumption of on-demand movies is probably the best bet. Video streaming is a tremendous driver of cloud usage and data traffic. It accounted for 63% of global internet traffic in 2015, and is expected to reach 80% by 2020. Netflix alone already accounts for over one-third of internet traffic in North America, and it is expanding worldwide.

The big Internet companies seem to be acutely sensitive about their energy use and carbon footprints. Google, for example, claims that by the end of 2017 all of their activities will be powered by renewable energy sources. And in 2007 the company made a commitment to be a ‘carbon neutral’ organisation and claims that it has met that goal every year since — by a mixture of buying ‘carbon offsets’ and using renewable energy sources.

But research by the campaigning organisation Greenpeace finds that many other tech companies still have large carbon footprints.

Further Reading

Greenpeace, Clicking Clean: Who is Winning the Race to Build a Green Internet?

Google: Environmental Report – 2017 update.

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