The Internet accounts for 3% to 5% of global electricity consumption.
The Internet has revolutionized our lives in unimaginable ways. From the way we shop to the way we work, the Web has been responsible for changing our lifestyles with just a click. Yet, the seemingly innocuous Internet is also one of the biggest emitters of carbon emissions, according to numerous reports that have been released recently, most notably the one by Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross. Raising eyebrows, it revealed that a few minutes spent searching on Google can produce roughly 14g of carbon dioxide, a similar amount produced by an electric kettle.
But how could searching on Google be connected to carbon dioxide? Quite simply, Google’s blinding speed in returning search results is due to using multiple data centers at the same time. “Google operates huge data centers around the world that consume a great deal of power,” explains Wissner-Gross.
It’s not just Google. IT firms around the world, who rely heavily on the Internet, are now waking up to the fact that they have been one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. In 2009, industry research firm Gartner reported that the global IT industry was responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, roughly equivalent to what the world’s airlines emit. That’s because any work done with the Internet requires servers, where all web pages and other data are stored. To keep the Internet running, these servers have to be in ‘power on’ mode at all times, which consumes great amounts of electricity. “Data centers are among the most energy-intensive facilities imaginable,” says Evan Mills, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
Carbon emissions are not limited to servers or desktop computers. Even software programs are culpable. Inefficient coding or plugins in software can force a computer to perform more calculations, which results in higher power consumption.
Although these findings are relatively new, the endeavor towards “green computing” began back in the 1990s in the U.S., when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced an energy efficiency program called “Energy Star.” Products, especially computers, were checked for their energy efficiency and labeled a with an Energy Star rating if they met the required levels. Soon, the Energy Star program came to be widely used across numerous countries and applied to many appliances. In 2006, the EPA upgraded its computer efficiency requirements with an aim to save more than $1.8 billion in energy costs over the next five years. An Energy Star assessed and labeled computer is now 65% more power efficient than its non-assessed peers, and the new rules are expected to prevent carbon emissions equal to that of 2.7 million cars on an annual basis.
Wissner-Gross estimates that just viewing a single web page
produces 0.02g of carbon dioxide per second. This goes up to 0.2g
if the website contains a high amount of graphics or animations.
Individual IT firms too are taking measures to curb their carbon footprint due to Internet usage. Google was one of the first companies to spend around $2.3 billion in 2008 to develop energy efficient infrastructure, chiefly for data centers. In Europe, in the same year, German web space provider Strato began employing renewable energy to power their servers.
Today, one of the most popular solutions on the horizon is cloud computing where files and data can be accessed, stored or exchanged over the Internet, limiting the use of servers. Cloud computing has caught so much attention that 2010 has even been named as the ‘Year of the Cloud.’ According to Pike Research, the energy efficiency benefits of cloud computing are very attractive compared to the utilization of conventional data centers. Their report forecasts that higher usage of cloud computing can lead to a drop in global energy use by at least 38% by 2020. Global spending on power could come down $16 billion from $23.3 billion in 2010, while carbon emissions could be slashed by as much as 28% from 2010 in the next decade. “That’s because, among other benefits, cloud computing delivers multiple efficiencies and economies of scale, which contribute to the reduction of energy consumption per unit of work, thereby helping to significantly reduce carbon,” says James Harris the Managing Director of Cloud Services at Accenture.
In effect, the Internet is responsible for sending out 300 million tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year. That is equivalent to the amount of fossil fuels burnt in the whole of Turkey or Poland. Yet, it is becoming increasingly evident that our endeavors to make the world carbon free are inextricably entwined with the ‘Net. It’s a double-edged sword though. For instance, a smart grid works only because the Internet feeds huge packets of data into it. On the other hand, as more business is conducted using video conferencing via the Internet, the need for flying across continents will decline, cutting back airplane induced emissions. It’s true, the Internet is firmly a part of our lives. We just cannot live without it. But we can live with it responsibly, thanks to growing energy saving efforts.