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The environmental cost of global networking

By Jean-Claude Elias - Oct 31,2019 - Last updated at Oct 31,2019

Think of what electric power your sweet personal laptop computer consumes, and then try to imagine how much 2.5 million server computers eat up. One single server uses an average 3.6 megawatts/hour per year, which corresponds to about 1 tonne of CO2 released in the air. The Belgian site energuide.be puts it simply but eloquently “Although the internet is a virtual space, using it still requires power and results in CO2 emissions. Think about it!”

2.5 million is the number of servers operated by Google, as estimated in 2016 by Gartner Inc., a research entity that belongs to the Standard & Poor’s group. Now imagine what the other big networks such as Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and the like do and add up to the phenomenon. The fact is that large networks use an incredible number of server computers that are kept powered on and that run 24/7.

Remote computing, audio-video streaming, online shopping, and banking, Internet communication, and the countless other similar network-based operations and tasks that we now take for granted and do without leaving our desk or home are, beyond any doubt, saving us precious time and transportation cost. This much is true, but what is the real impact of all that on the environment in the end?

The direct benefit of remote computing is something we experience every day. From there, it is easy to jump to the obvious conclusion that since we are cutting on transportation and using vehicles less and less, we are at the same time protecting the environment by using less fossil fuel, emitting less harmful gases in the atmosphere, and reducing roads wear.

Recently, however, voices have been heard about the real impact of all the gigantic networking that has been taking place, an impact that is somewhat hidden, less obvious to perceive. There an on-going debate even about electric cars that understandably do not release toxic gases at all but that still need batteries to run. What is the real impact of manufacturing, maintaining (i.e. recharging) and then recycling the batteries at the end of their useful life? What is the “carbon footprint”, as the expression introduced some fifteen years ago goes?

The simple — perhaps even simplistic — principle about energy that we learn in high-school in science class remains valid: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” What we save here we have to consume there. In practice, the calculation about how much is actually saved, to what extend the environment is protected, is more complex than the above universal principle.

Some ten or 12 years ago, IT specialists would argue about the impact of e-mail, saying that whereas it does save energy and money in terms of paper and physical transportation of traditional mail, it still makes computers and networks consume energy in the end. Therefore, the forests may not be as protected as we thought they were after all! Today we are far, far away from just e-mail.

At this point in time the debate about the general impact of global networking is hot but no conclusive opinion has been reached, no final figures have been released, and certainly no decision about eventual action, one way or another, is nearly about to be taken. Not in the foreseeable future at least. It would be hard to imagine that some authority would bravely come forward to tell the giant players in the game to reduce the number of servers they operate.

In the meantime I am afraid I will spend some time tonight watching Netflix, putting to good use their servers, not to mention the time I will spend searching the Internet for the movie to watch.

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