• Every second of online video you watch puts 0.2 grams of carbon into the atmosphere, so YouTube is chugging out 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a day.
• Major data centres account for almost two percent of the world’s carbon emissions, which is about the same as those of the aviation industry. Thankfully, these data centres are not pumping it directly into the upper atmosphere.
• With more than 1.5 billion people around the world now online, studies estimate the Internet’s energy footprint is growing by more than ten percent annually.
Greenpeace’s ‘Unfriending coal’ photo campaign in Norrköping, Sweden aimed to encourage Facebook to switch to renewable energy sources
The online world somehow seems clean and finished, as if it’s been conjured into existence like some kind of Neverland, untroubled by such oldworld concerns as pollution and energy depletion.
The reality is quite different. Greenpeace estimates that the huge barns full of computer servers that make our Gmail accounts ping and enable us to flog jumpers to each other on TradeMe suck up as much as two percent of the world’s entire energy requirements. And it’s growing at a rate of 12 percent a year.
Greenpeace’s interest is part of the increasing scrutiny of these massive companies. Facebook and Apple have come under particular attack for their unfortunate tendency to plug into more coal-fired power stations than most of their competitors.
Of course, all this energy costs, so smart companies will be keen to cut down where they can. Typically, about half of the power used in IT is for keeping things cool, which has prompted IBM to investigate reusing the heat emitted by its humming machines to warm other parts of their buildings. Microsoft has a data centre in Quincy, Washington, that it claims operates on 100 percent hydropower from the Columbia River Basin.
Google, meanwhile, is considering putting data centres on barges and cooling them using seawater, or locating the data centres in naturally chilly places, like in abandoned underground coal mines. The company is also investing heavily in renewable energy, including generating its own power using photovoltaic solar panels on top of its buildings. And Google made a big thing of going carbon neutral in 2007, with a combination of energy-efficiency measures and buying offsets.
So much for the online giants – but what can you do? The first step is to realise that your online footprint has an effect on your carbon footprint. All that stuff you put online – all the emails dating back to your first dial-up internet link, every half-started profile on a social media site – is just like old rubbish. It has to go somewhere. It’s not buried in a hole, it’s sitting on a server somewhere that requires power to keep working.
It’s so much easier to simply buy more space when your Gmail account gets full, as I did the other day. But a more efficient option is to do a little virtual spring-cleaning. For one thing, reducing the amount of unnecessary or potentially compromising material out there can also increase your security online: old passwords can get hacked, and old photos and writing can pop up where you least expect or want them. It’s also a way of reducing mental clutter – like dealing to junk mail.
I’m going to remain a regular Facebook and Twitter user, as well as hold onto my email addresses and current blog. But I’m going to Google my own name and check my old logins for stuff I haven’t used for more than three months. Then I can systematically delete my trash information. It’s a bit like going through the attic – it’s amazing the memories you can find lurking around out there!
Another way to be eco online is to use a search engine like ecosearch.org that donates money to green causes as you type. The downside being that they never seem to be as slick as the mainstream offerings. Perhaps the better option is to put pressure on the big players to clean up their acts. After all, they can be reached at the touch of a button.