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Paying the environmental price of the internet

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I was talking to one of my daughters and she used a phrase that to me was so profound: “environmentally respectful”. Flora followed that up with “‘environmentally-friendly’ is just an excuse to seem as though you are doing something to make a difference”.

And she is right. We have this week seen a further resurgence in the IPCC drive to secure a more effective global warming target, building on the ever-growing revulsion at the pollution – primarily plastics – that is killing our seas, oceans, rivers and water spaces. And we all must take a degree of responsibility for the mess that has been created in these critical environments.

I was stunned to overhear two people talking in the supermarket and one declaring: “I have changed to paper straws, and whilst they are a little more expensive they are so essential . . .”

I then indulged in a small moment of reflection to understand how a straw could be so essential in life? It is a luxury. It is a non-essential tubular device that affords the movement of non-solid matter from one end to another. It doesn’t support life. What else in our world could be less essential? Oh yes, Voice-type home assistants. Possibly the most significant “technology” contributor to the accelerated carbon threat we have seen in the last 10 years. By this stage you may well think that this is some “old bloke”, not of the IT generation and just having a go at technology that he doesn’t understand. You might be right, but I will let the facts help you decide.

“Voice-assistant type” products are consolidating our reliance on the use of technology to just live, exploiting the internet-of-things that we are told is so essential to modern living. There is a very dark secret that it masks.

Not unreasonably, most people look at the internet, and the provision of online services as “free” and environmentally friendly. We cannot touch them – they are virtual, we may pay a subscription, but it is commonly thought that it is a necessity that doesn’t have much of an effect on the environment. Indeed, how could a person globally-linked HD-gaming in their room with someone on the other side of the world possibly harm the environment?

A significant proportion of the population exploiting these necessities use a cloud-based technology – but this isn’t some soft floating structure or state of non-being, but an interconnected constellation of data centres that hold the world’s information. And while individual interactions on the world wide web (or other information vehicles) are not particularly demanding, it is only when you start scaling up our global use that the skies start to darken with the realisation of what has been created … in 1992 we exchanged 100GB of data per day; in 2013 we exchanged 28,000GB of data per second, and today it cannot even be quantified such is their scale and complexity.

The explosion of data centres is not only creating significant amounts of heat energy and consequently physical warming, but more significantly they are consuming phenomenal amounts of energy just to exist. In 2013 the global industry was consuming 91 billion KWHs; by 2020 that could be 140 billion. That latter figure is equivalent to about 50 conventional power stations and would represent over 50% of the UK’s current power generation.

This is more scandalous when some of the operating facts are exposed. Because up-time is critical, most data server centres work at 10-15% to ensure access and delivery supporting a 24/7 global demand. That doesn’t mean they use any less power. While better utilisation is being developed through concepts such as server virtualisation, speed of access is king and so the incentive to better exploit what we have is unquestionably suppressed.

And not mentioned so far is the proliferation of crypto currencies and the data-mining that this industry naturally demands – broadly speaking, it is how it generates the revenue it needs to exist. And then there is 5G. Our appetite is insatiable but, unchecked, calamitous. Peer review indicates that the data demand is increasing at a three-fold rate per year and current projections foresee the communications/IT/ICT industry consuming 20% of the global electricity supply by 2025.

I find it incredible the likes of Greenpeace, major institutions and governments in support of Kyoto/Paris/Incheon seem so quiet. Today, directly related internet activity accounts for as much carbon pollution as that of the aviation industry. The big difference is the aviation industry is checking pace and addressing its carbon contribution.

Internet technology is proliferating with little regard for its burgeoning carbon contribution – and could account for 5.5% of global carbon production by 2025. My closing message is simple. The next time you indulge a locally resourced organic flapjack and decide to share that moment of environmentally friendly indulgence with family and friends, just think about the consequences of that swipe, click, like or re-tweet.

All that good intent inherent in your act of buying said flapjack will be wiped out as you generate more data, further working the servers – and for what? Only when you positively address the consequence of your intended action do you then start to become environmentally respectful.