The internet is often seen as the greatest invention since the railways – but its impact on climate change is increasing.
Many believe that going online bears no environmental cost, since web access is essentially invisible; you’re not driving a car emitting smoke or heating your house with fossil fuels. However, all those billions of computers, tablets and smartphones need energy to manufacture and then power as they draw down trillions of items of information each minute.
Research by UK web hosting company Kualo reveals that all the world’s computers including data centers, cloud storage and social media platforms will generate 1.5 gigatons of greenhouse gases per year by 2020, equivalent to 3% of all global emissions.
This is because the world’s current tally of 3.5 billion internet users is steadily increasing, particularly as more emerging markets are able to get online. It means that their combined carbon footprint will exceed that of the airline industry, which has been steadily reducing its environmental impact through cleaner and more efficient engines.
Everyone online – including anyone reading this story – is minutely contributing to global warming every time they open a web page. Clicking on a mouse or keypad to email a friend doesn’t seem like it is adding to climate change, yet ever second that someone browses a simple website adds 20 milligrams of C02 to the atmosphere. More complex websites with advanced graphics can add up to 300 milligrams per second.
There are currently an estimated 70 million servers in the world, most of which are powered by mainstream electricity grids, contributing 2% to greenhouse gas emissions. Data centers alone use about 30 gigawatts a year, or 30 billion watts of electricity, according to Green House Data. This is enough to power every house in Italy.
So, can this be curtailed? Many large users or owners of datacenters are aware of the environmental implications; Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon all have stated targets to increase the use of renewable energy for their facilities.
“In 2013, Apple said all of its data centers were now fully powered by renewable energy, including facilities in California, Texas, Ireland and Germany,” says Richard Speetjens, portfolio manager in Robeco’s Trends Investing team.
“Data centers that house computing infrastructure for services like iTunes, Siri, Maps and the App Store now get 100% of their power from a combination of renewable energy that the company buys, mixed with on-site generation capacity.”
They all do care a lot about our planet
“Google recently stated that somewhere in 2017, all of its data centers around the world will be entirely powered with renewable energy sources, up from 45% in 2015. Google says its vast network of global operations will start purchasing as much renewable energy as it uses across all 13 data centers and all of its office complexes.”
“Facebook is already at 30% of clean and renewable energy used in its data center electricity supply mix. The company is now aiming to have at least 50% clean and renewable energy in its total energy mix in 2018. Finally, Amazon Web Services – the cloud business of Amazon – generated over 40% of electricity supply from renewable sources in 2016, and is targeting 50% by the end of 2017.”
So, even though these companies might have a bad image with owning a lot of energy-consuming facilities, they all do care a lot about our planet, and are increasingly becoming more dependent on renewable energy sources.”
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