Energy guzzler Internet - diesel instead of airy cloud

March 30, 2022

When we browse social media on our cell phones, send e-mails to our friends or colleagues, or simply wind down after work with one of the numerous streaming services such as Netflix, for example, we don't make a direct connection with climate change in these matters. But why not, actually?

In 2020, around 34.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide were emitted into the air.   According to calculations, it is assumed that about 2.1 to 3.9% of this amount is due to the use of the Internet. Assuming the most favorable scenario, that would still be over 700 million tons of CO2. For comparison, there are estimates of air travel emissions in 2018 and 2019, respectively, of about 2.5% to 3.01%.

Around 4.9 billion people were online in 2021, and in any case a major upward trend is still expected here.

So how can something seemingly intangible like the internet and the use of a "cloud" now rain down on us in the form of major environmental damage?

How streaming and messenger services are impacting our environment

All the above activities, with streaming at the forefront, consume storage space that must be made available. This is done by unimaginably large data centers, such as the NSA's American "Bumblehive" in Utah, which covers an area of a hundred thousand square meters, or China Telecom's world's largest data center, which sprawls over 100 hectares near the capital of Inner Mongolia.

Those data centers, which usually run several million servers, are kept running with large amounts of electricity. But to keep them functioning and data retrievable in the event of a power outage, they need emergency generators, usually powered by diesel engines as big as steam locomotives.

Frankfurt's largest data center alone, the E-Shelter, has a diesel tank of several hundred thousand liters at a size of 60,000m².

The volumes of data for cloud computing, Big Data and A.I. are growing ever larger, and so is the demand for energy. Billions of people are using "clouds", offloading their data so that they can then collect even more data on their end devices. On top of that, there are numerous companies that are doing the same thing on a huge scale. Amazon and co earn much of their revenue by providing cloud computing for small and medium sized businesses.

As technology continues to evolve, more and more people are gaining access to IT as products become cheaper and demand continues to rise. According to a UN report from the end of 2021, 2.9 billion people have never been online, so there's probably a long way to go before peak numbers are measured in terms of Internet pollution.

Two conceivable solutions: Abandonment or technology?

The Internet is a place with virtually no restrictions or rules to follow. Even an Internet driver's license is not yet required. So, banning people from using Facebook or Instagram now, or imposing "surfing caps" on them, would not be enforceable at all.

If you want to make a difference even as an individual, you should think very carefully about how and when you consume streaming, social media or the like. Is it necessary to spend hours browsing social media with Amazon Prime Video running in the background?

For people who classify their Internet consumption as excessive and uncontrolled anyway, the "digital minimalism" approach would certainly be interesting. In other words, you only use the Internet for the seriously necessary things that give you an edge, and you tune out others that are merely pastimes.

However, the big, noticeable differences can already be achieved in the construction of data centers. If they become more efficient and ecological, then a significant amount of pollution can be saved.

For example, the 670,000m² "The Citadel" in Nevada is already powered exclusively by renewable energy. Amazon plans to raise wind farms as a countermeasure to its huge data centers in North Carolina, and Apple is focusing on building solar farms, with its data centers already running on green power.

Meanwhile, Swedish company Interxion is even recycling the waste heat generated by its servers by feeding it into the district heating network. This can already be used to heat around ten thousand apartments.

It becomes clear that the architecture of data centers offers opportunities to enable entirely new extra-urban urban development. Just imagine what the heat generated by cooling could be used for. Swimming pools, greenhouses or entire apartment blocks could be supplied with it.

In order not to let these possibilities fall by the wayside, universities should make the issues surrounding the construction of large server farms more accessible, especially to their trainee engineers and architects.

Finally, one should also ask whether these large data centers really represent the future of data supply. Particularly if the widespread introduction of autonomous driving is imminent, more decentralized storage of data near the end customers would make sense.

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