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Technology May Cost the Earth, But It Will Also Save It

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This one is about the environment and just how much are we paying for the modern convenience/necessity of emails?  It also updates an old MBF Blog from July 2012, Do Emails Cost the Earth?

In the same month that a report from MPs reveals that the promotion of electric cars has cost the taxpayer to subsidise electric cars. Less that 2000 are on the road so far, yet we shelled out over £6000 each to kick-start the cut in greenhouse gases.

What seems to have escaped the notice of the powers that be that electric cars may use no petrol, but they use a lot of energy produced by gas/oil/electric power.

So, it’s timely to wonder where we are being led by this relentless propaganda about saving the planet. They say that the internet is better than old fashioned phones and letters and driving to meeting/shops/socialising.

But is it?

The Staggering Amounts of Energy Computers Soak Up

Duncan Graham-Rowe reported in New Scientist in May 2009 an estimated 152 billion kilowatt hours of power were needed every year to keep the internet running, but that was a conservative stab in the dark, so to speak, even then.

That was just the servers. Power in individual computers and peripherals took the totals way beyond that, putting it on a par with the aviation industry. Searches are particularly costly in energy terms.

So, in that sense, no, it is not more environmentally friendly to communicate by email than other systems. A video conference may not be better than flying people about to meet in person. At present over 2% of human-caused CO2 emissions are down to the web, with that set to rise inexorably.

The answer of the energy lobby is that we must all stop growing the carbon footprints of the internet, as if it was that simple. They urge more taxes on energy use. But they should remember that the economy of the entire globe now depends on digital exploitation and to increase costs is just to raise inflation as all costs are passed on.

Free trade requires costs to be constantly driven down. And in truth, computers are getting more energy efficient and data centres are ‘greening up’. As Leo Hickman pleaded in The Guardian in 2009, being unable to sacrifice his posts and blogs for the sake of the planet, ‘don’t take my internet away….’

Drowning in Doom Data

Meanwhile, Mike Berners-Lee from his book, How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything with Duncan Clarke in The Guardian wrote: ‘The internet releases around 300m tonnes of CO2 a year – as much as all the coal, oil and gas burned in Turkey or Poland, or more than half of the fossil fuels burned in the UK.’

That’s equivalent to every UK citizen flying to the USA and back twice over. And that was in 2010. Clearly, as is the way of these things, those stats have also risen exponentially. Everyone accepts that stats are hard to pin down, being whatever you want them to mean, but the internet is especially complex.

Buildings to hold masses of servers full of data, web pages, online applications and downloadable files can be made environmentally friendly only up to a point. The fact that these places need such air cooling is a massive power cost. The heat from servers can be used to heat neighbouring buildings, so technology is already on the case.

Without the internet itself, the evolution of a truly low-carbon world is not possible as energy data demands instant transmission to be effective. So, it is a vicious circle. The web makes the world less green, but it can only be more green through the net.

Many entrepreneurs would say that was actually a virtuous circle. Do you agree?


Christian Science Monitor, Judy Lowe, Is the Internet bad for the environment? 8 May 2009

The Guardian, Duncan Clarke & Mike Berners-Lee, What’s the carbon footprint of the internet? 12 August 2010

The Guardian, Leo Hickman, Don’t take my internet away, 4 May 2009

Also check out:

Do Emails Cost the Earth? 20 July 2011

The Future of Computer Infrastructure, 2 November 2011

Digital Addictions Hook More People, 16 February 2012

Email Hoarding Is New Psychological Condition, 17 April 2012

Image: Andrew Z Colvin