Sitting at my computer, I am feeling terribly guilty about what I have just done to the planet. No, I haven’t bought shares in a coal-fired power plant or traded in my electric car for a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive. I have simply held a video call on my laptop.
Computing and environment guru Gerry McGovern, a writer described as ‘visionary’ because of his insights and influences on the World Wide Web, wanted me to call on his landline — and has just explained the consequences of my insistence on video for this interview.
‘It’s difficult to be precise, but the energy needed for a one-hour call on a landline would have generated less than 5 grams of carbon dioxide,’ he says. ‘Using video over a laptop would be more like 170g.’
That is the same weight as a carton of Bisto gravy granules. And now it’s adding to the greenhouse gases causing climate change… because of me.
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Each time we send an email, search on Google, or watch a film on Netflix, carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted because of the creation of the energy required to run your PC, phone or smart TV, and to power the ‘data centres’ that house the computers that make all of this work.
Emails produce between 4 g and 50 g of CO2, depending on how many people receive them and whether they carry an attachment. And technology market research group Radicati reckons we’re sending 320 billion every day.
According to online research company GigaOm, a tweet emits 0.02 g of CO2 — enough energy to power a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds — and 500 million are sent each day. And 0.2 g is generated by a single Google search, with 3.5 billion processed daily.
Last month, Netflix said streaming one hour of its content resulted in ‘under 100 g’ of CO2, or the equivalent of driving a (non-electric) car a quarter of a mile.
In 2019, the company said the average subscriber — of which there are more than 203 million — was watching two hours of content each day.
During the pandemic, that figure has risen to just over three hours.
However, last month the streaming giant announced a target of net zero emissions by the end of 2022.
‘This mounts up and we should all be aware that our internet habits have consequences for the environment,’ says Gerry, the author of World Wide Waste: How Digital Is Killing Our Planet — And What We Can Do About It. ‘But that isn’t the worst of it. We use an enormous number of electronic devices, and the production of these devices creates huge amounts of pollution — about 60 kg of CO2 is emitted in the manufacture of the average smartphone.
‘On average, that phone creates a further 5-6kg of CO2 a year when you use its digital capabilities as a phone and on the internet.’
Using the internet feels clean — it’s paper-free and there seems to be no smoke or grime attached to it.
But there are ‘data centres’ gobbling up huge amounts of resources, which house and power the millions of computers, known as ‘servers’, that are required to make the internet work.
There are more than seven million data centres around the world, from a few computers on racks in small companies to hyperscale buildings, sucking up electricity and spewing out heat.
Describing some of the largest of these in the journal Nature, science journalist Nicola Jones wrote: ‘Inside these vast factories, bigger than aircraft carriers, tens of thousands of circuit boards are racked row upon row, stretching down windowless halls so long that staff ride through the corridors on scooters.’
In 2018, data centres used up 205 terawatt hours (TWh). A terawatt is a unit of energy equal to putting out one trillion watts for an hour. That amounted to about one per cent of the energy used to power everything on the planet for the year.
No one knows for certain how data centre demand for power will grow, but scientists have estimated that by the time our phones are running on 6G networks in 2030, data centres will need 1,100 TWh at best — and 8,000 at worst.
There are around 450 hyperscale data centres worldwide, with at least another 150 planned. Many of these are run by the Big Five internet companies: Amazon, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, all of which have made great progress in reducing or eliminating their carbon footprints.
Last year, Google claimed to have reduced its footprint to zero by offsetting all the carbon it had been responsible for since its creation in 1998.
The company promised to use only clean, renewable energy by 2030, as have Microsoft and Apple. Amazon plans to be carbon- neutral by 2040. And after Google, Facebook is the world’s biggest buyer of renewable energy.
But not all conservationists believe offsetting their footprint is the way forward.
The author and environmentalist George Monbiot once wrote: ‘Buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it.’
Many environmentalists have been impressed by the efforts of the Big Five to become carbon-neutral, but Gerry isn’t one of them — at least where Google and Amazon are concerned.
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170 g: The amount of CO2 generated by an hour-long video call — about the same weight as a pack of Bisto gravy granules.
320 billion: The number of emails sent per day.
0.02 g: The carbon dioxide created by sending one tweet — enough to power a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds.
60 kg: The amount of carbon dioxide emitted to make the average smartphone — which then goes on to create a further 5-6 kg of the gas per year via internet usage and calls.
90 per cent: Of all the data stored online, this is how much is not needed or used.
One terawatt: Unit of energy equivalent to using one trillion watts for an hour. Data centres used 205 TWh hours in 2018 — 1 per cent of the world’s energy usage.
One exabyte: One billion gigabytes.
1,327 exabytes: Information stored in the world’s seven million data centres.
20 trillion trees: The number that would be needed to print out all the information contained in one exabyte. There are some 3.5 trillion trees on Earth.
He says that ‘whether they get to be carbon-neutral or not’, both companies are concerned with making us ‘consume more and more all the time.
‘Whichever way you look at it, that’s a destructive model.’
So I put this to the two tech giants. Google failed to respond; Amazon provided details of its conservation plans without addressing Gerry’s argument.
The problem underlying all of this is our insati- able desire to gather information, either personally or at corporate level, where companies display huge amounts of data on their websites and gather more on the people who visit them.
It is useful to know that one ‘bit’ of data represents a single letter or number in a digital file. Eight of these are a ‘byte’ and 1,000 million bytes become a ‘gigabyte’.
There are one billion gigabytes in an ‘exabyte’ and, according to corporate researchers statista.com, the world’s data centres are storing 1,327 exabytes of data.
To put that into perspective, printing out all the information contained in one exabyte would require 20 trillion trees for the paper. The best estimate of the number of trees on Earth is 3.5 trillion. The amount of data being stored is increasing by 2.5 exabytes a day and, according to online security company Cybersecurity Ventures, this exponential growth will result in data centres harbouring 200 ‘zettabytes’ — which contain 1,000 exabytes — by 2025.
All the storage and processing of this data requires energy — but research has shown that as much as 90 per cent of it is either never used or not needed.
The digital team at the University of Southampton, headed by Ayala Gordon, recently conducted an audit of the information associated with the university’s online presence. She found it had 4 million pages — but only 156,000 had been accessed in the previous three years.
Of these, just 8,000 pages attracted 90 per cent of all its traffic. Ayala said: ‘If you add it all together, the internet uses roughly the same amount of electricity as the entire UK, one of the world’s largest economies.’
So, what can we do to rein in this voracious consumer of power and producer of greenhouse gases?
First, companies should consider conducting an audit to see whether they, too, could simplify their websites and delete unnecessary data.
As individuals, we could cut back on our streaming, gaming and social media, as well as our emailing habits. And when your phone starts to look dated, don’t be tempted to trade up at the first opportunity.
Chris Adams, co-director of the Green Web Foundation campaign group, says a little environmental lobbying could go a long way.
‘We’re not asking people to stop speaking to their grandmother over Zoom or watching a film on Netflix,’ he says. ‘It is more important to generate systemic change by contacting your internet service provider to ask whether they source their energy from renewables. Tell them if they don’t, you’ll switch to one that does.’
Having watched me launch a Bisto tub’s worth of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Gerry tells me I should put a cap on this article. The more I write, the more will be stored online — consuming yet more energy.
But at least this is one emission that may do some good. You and I now know how to reduce our web-driven carbon footprint. That’s two of us — only another 4.6 billion internet users to go.