The Link Between Internet Use and Global Warming

A view of the data centre at the University of Washington, Seattle. Photo: Taylor Vick/Unsplash

On December 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, was brought into effect, with 196 parties resolving to ensure that the increase in global temperature would be no greater than 1.5º C.

As of August 9, 2021, the global temperature rise reached 1.2 degrees Celsius, and has since continued to rise, leading UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ to declare the IPCC report a “Code Red for Humanity” with the planet “at imminent risk of hitting 1.5°C in the near term”.

Every single instance of energy consumption pushes the global temperature rise closer to the 1.5 degree limit.  And as temperatures rise, so does the demand for cooling devices which in turn consume fuel and generate heat, in an endless vicious cycle.

How then is one to halt the continued rise of global temperatures? Certainly not by maintaining current levels of fuel consumption.

Researchers have urged measures beyond efficiency improvements, with a significant focus on reduction in the consumption of powered devices. However, there appears to be no indication of a large-scale attempt towards energy-austerity.

Manufacturing, travel, tech development and defense operations, all make use of significant quantities of energy. So do illumination, cooling and essential civic services. Further, the running of any power-consuming device produces heat regardless of the type of fuel used.

Is there any sphere of human living where consumption may swiftly and efficiently be reduced to help contain the rise of global temperatures?

The manufacture and frequent replacements of smartphones comes at great cost to the environment. However, the actual usage of smartphones for internet-based activities is as serious, if not greater, a contributor to global warming.

All internet activity involves the transfer of data to and from data centers. Every ‘like’, tweet, streaming and image involves a trip to a 24/7 datacenter, which consumes a significant amount of electricity, generating a lot of heat in the process.

In 2015 alone, the world’s data centers used up 416.2 TWh of electricity – higher than the UK’s total energy consumption in that year. This number was estimated to double every 4 years, despite innovations in hardware that massively increase their capacity to store data. This degree of data center growth is unsustainable beyond the next 10-15 years, according to Ian Bitterlin, Britain’s foremost data center expert and formerly, a visiting professor at the University of Leeds.

A recent study (referred to by the 2019 book New Dark Age by James Bridle) indicates that by 2030, the power requirements of Japan’s data centers will exceed the nation’s entire electricity generation capacity.

These estimates of data center consumption are likely to be conservative owing to the difficulty in tracking energy consumption across hardware, software, network systems and infrastructure associated with the running of data centers, variability in energy metrics and the lack of transparency of major internet based companies such as Amazon Web Services and others based in China.

Internet data centers which can span large areas of up to 150,000 square meters field data from around the world, round the clock. Loudoun County, in Virginia, U.S.A, currently houses data servers for about 3000 companies, and it is estimated that about 70% of the world’s internet traffic passes through these servers. The enormous quantities of electricity required to run these data servers is set to exceed that of the aviation industry.

As speed and data storage capacities increase so does online consumption and the corresponding energy for data transfers (a case of the Jevons paradox).

Adding to the warming associated with the use of humongous quantities of fuel, is the physical heating of data servers which has prompted a relocation of some of these servers to the Lulea, Sweden 70 miles from the Arctic Circle, still requiring around 500 giant cooling fans to keep the servers functioning, adding to the energy consumed.

Although smartphones are not the only means by which internet activity is carried out, their significant portability over computers and laptops makes them the most likely to be employed for online activities. Whereas computers were largely confined to work spaces, smartphones now accompany consumers everywhere, on public transport, restrooms and even to bed, creating round-the-clock opportunities for internet consumption. It is anybody’s guess what percentage of such activity is of a productive nature.

The most energy-intensive transfers involve image data and image heavy activities such as gaming, pornography, gambling, streaming of movies, endless sharing of memes and videos on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter and online window-shopping. Consider work-hours lost to such activities and the subsequent increase in electricity for illumination to support work post sunset, to make up for time lost during the day.

Add to this the 41 billion ‘Internet of Things’ systems expected to be in use by 2025 which rely heavily on cloud computation and climate disasters appear unavoidable.

Energy experts have recommended a number of remedial measures to reduce the environmental cost of smartphone internet usage such as a shift to text-based and audio communications which has the added benefit of increasing battery life and reducing the corresponding depletion of green cover and water resources for the extraction of metals that go into smartphone manufacture.

But the efficacy of any corrective course of action will depend on the willingness of individuals to self-regulate.

Monika Krishan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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