Since the rise of the Internet, it is undeniable that it has now become a foundational pillar for the functioning of society and our individual lives. But how much do we actually engage with the internet rather than just interact with it?.
Though it might seem a silly question to ask, especially after living with this thing for about 30 years since the .Com boom in the 1990’s, but how much do we really know about the internet?
What is it?
The Internet, and the industry it operates within is the Information, Communications and Technology (‘ICT’) industry. This umbrella term encompasses everything required to make internet work:
- The Internet Protocol (the language of the internet);
- Data centres (server warehouses and storage centres);
- ICT Infrastructure (the servers themselves, cooling towers, cables to transmit electricity to the data centres, cables – for landline based equipment and network nodes, ICT suppliers (every company on Earth) and end-point users, our own personal devices, to name a few.
With the many advances of the ICT industry and its rapid diffusion around the world, it is estimated that there are currently around 7 billion users of wireless devices employing internet technology.
That is over 90% of the total global population are online.
Benefits of this connectivity are significant.
Connectivity and communication
Communications can be sent to anyone anywhere in the world and a response received in seconds. This aids not only our socialization but the ability to maintain relationships without too much hindrance from distance and geography.
Commerce and economy
Hyper-speed connectivity also aids with our work and commerce as a whole. Teams can communicate with each other remotely, global trade functions by a simple click and the general ability for businesses and individuals to generate income is heightened.
Information and knowledge
Ability to find out any piece of information we could want online is so effective that we now have to deal with the excess of this opportunity; information overload and disinformation.
Anyone can obtain an education or learn utilizing the internet and open-source information without being affronted with as many obstacles as there once was i.e. location, living near an educational institution, money to access an education etc.
Democracy and development
As a result of all this, there has been an expansion of global democracy, accountability, transparency, the ability express an opinion, organize masses for social movements and to critique questionable behaviours of corporate, State and individual actors.
These are pre-requisites of democracy and is demonstrated, in real-time, in developing countries whom are starting to systemize individual’s access to internet and thus, raising populations out of poverty.
… And so much more…
Then there’s, literally, everything else – paying bills, entertainment, banking, navigation and so forth.
Fantastic! So then, what’s the problem?
Well, it takes energy and electricity to keep the internet train on the tracks, a lot of energy and electricity.
Every single thing done on the internet requires creation of an energetic output; every browser search, every photo upload, every email sent and received, every page browsed, even the maintenance of your Wi-Fi connection to let you do all those other things.
All of this, essentially, is data being transmitted. This leads us to data centres – the brains of this whole operation.
Warehouses bigger than aircraft carriers are built and expanded daily to house thousands of circuit boards, servers and towers required to compute, store and process all this data being transmitted and this is done in data centres.
Although these data centres don’t emit black smoke out of chimneys or toxic radiation, they still have an environmental impact which is only like to increase with expected rises in global ICT demand, energy expansion and usage.
What’s more, is that these data centres are online and active 24/7; we humans may sleep, but the internet does not (nor do our expectations for it!).
It’s reported that the ICT industry accounts for approximately 2% of global carbon emissions, which is equivalent to that of the entire aviation industry, placing it at number 6 in terms of the world’s largest polluter.
Some predictions also estimate that this carbon footprint is likely to rise fifteen fold by 2030 with global data demand increasing.
The heavy hitters, Microsoft, emitted about 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gas in2020 and Amazon, 44 million tonnes according to Greenpeace.
With cryptocurrencies use now being normalised, the need for computers to ‘mine’ these virtual coins and validate the blockchain are growing rapidly. A PwC audit into Bitcoin’s, alone, electricity consumption estimated it would be up to 0.33% of global electricity use.
The ICT industry however, has proved itself to be one of the most adaptable when it comes to sustainable practice with many ICT reliant firms committing to carbon neutrality.
Hyper-Scale Data Centres
Hyper-scale data centres are now replacing traditional data centres to assist with efficiency and sustainability. Rapid improvements from such upgrades ensures energy efficiency and consumption of far less energy needed to cool equipment.
It’s expected that hyperscale data centres will double from figures recorded in 2015 by 2021 to 628, and their share of all data centre traffic too will rise from 34% to 55%.
Constructions of these hyperscale models in places where environmental conditions are naturally cooler, will lower electricity consumption costs and so too will placement in continents and nations where renewable energy is the main energy source.
Although the ICT industry itself is responsible for the methods in which they deliver their services to us, we, as the end point users, can do many things to encourage sustainable practices by the sector.
To ensure our demands on data doesn’t encroach on our environmental sustainable responsibility, consider the following:
- Use certain platforms to check how much renewable energy is powering an ICT company’s, that you engage with, data centre infrastructure;
- Clean your inbox! Deleting unnecessary emails can reduce your own individual data transmission during each session;
- Don’t leave unnecessary programs or windows running in the background during a session and try to actually turn off your personal electronic devices when not in use to lessen your data transmissions; and
- Recycle your personal electronic devices when upgrading or replacing – all that hardware is energy hungry to produce and should be re-used where possible.
- The Internet’s environmental impact & how you can help (erjjiostudios.com)
- Renewable Energy Will Not Solve Bitcoin’s Sustainability Problem (researchgate.net)
- Data centres and energy – from global headlines to local headaches? – Analysis – IEA
- How Much Energy Do Data Centers Really Use? – Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology
- Microsoft, Google, Amazon – Who’s the Biggest Climate Hypocrite? – Greenpeace USA
- Big Tech races to clean up act as cloud energy use grows | Financial Times (ft.com)
- How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity (nature.com)