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Is the Internet Hurting Our Environment?

The internet is used by over 4 billion people worldwide.
And Believe it or not, I’m one of those 4 billion.

I not only spend large chunks of my days wading through twitter feeds and random Subreddits.
In other parts of my life, I try to reduce my environmental impact.
But for all the effort I put into creating environmentally ethical daily habits, my internet usage always seems to get a pass.
One of the reasons I don’t think as critically about the Internet and the environment might have to do with the relative invisibility of the web’s inner-workings; it’s harder to see the impact.
Because of that invisibility, today I’m going to dig into the infrastructure of the internet in order to truly understand its environmental consequences.

If the IT sector was a country it would rank only behind the U.S. and China in terms of global energy demand.
Although there are really four main areas of the digital world that drive that massive energy use, the internet really relies heavily on two: data centers and network communication.

First, Data Centers.
Data Centers are the new form of factories in our digital world.
They are the internet, materialized. For every website, search, or uploaded video, information gets drawn upon and stored in the thousands of stacks of computers that make up a data center.
Essentially, the internet that we interact with every day is just an intuitive and user-friendly way to access those servers.
And for companies like Google, the amount of information that data centers manage is massive.
That we know of, Google currently runs 16 data centers that act like interconnected nodes to handle over 40,000 search queries happening every second.
To function well then, these engine-like centers require a large amount of electricity.
This is partly due to the fact that each of those 40,000 searches requires a little bit of energy, but also because all of those computers stacked together to generate a lot of heat, and the best way to cool them all down is through air conditioning.
A 2015 study puts data center energy usage at around 300 TWh/year in 2012, which was roughly 2% of global demand.
But as services like video streaming become more prevalent data center energy requirements have only increased.
The same study predicts that data center energy demand could well become 13% of globes total thirst for electricity.
And if all of this energy demand relies heavily on fossil fuels, this could easily spell a large boom in greenhouse gas emissions.

The second piece of the internet puzzle are communication networks.
According to a recent Greenpeace report, networks made up 29% of the IT sector’s energy footprint in 2017.
Essentially, the internet network is what allows our computers and phones to access data centers.
They are the complicated system of roads and checkpoints that allow us to travel through the web.
But in order to push data from internet servers to our devices, we need physical wiring and receiver infrastructure, which requires energy.
On top of the physical installation of communication feeds carried out by internet service providers, routers and receivers send, in very simple terms, electrical signals from data centers to your internet device.
The total energy requirements of communication networks can depend on how you calculate them, but one 2012 study asserts that the total global network communications energy usage was 354 TWh per year or the equivalent energy needed to power the 32.9 million U.S. homes for a year.
At a predicted growth rate of over 10%, that number has only grown in the last seven years.

But just because the internet’s infrastructure requires energy, doesn’t necessarily mean that the electricity has to have a high emissions footprint attached to it.
There are big tech companies like Facebook and Google that are making long strides towards a greener internet through purchasing renewable energy from utilities and encouraging energy efficiency.
As streaming begins to take over the lion’s share of data and energy usage associated with the internet, with estimates now claiming video services account for 80% of internet traffic, it’s important to understand that there are two paths forward.

One that appreciates the environmental consequences of the internet, and the other that relies on a business, as usual, fossil-fuel-reliant model.
Two video giants are treading these divergent paths: Youtube and Netflix.
Greenpeace rated both companies on a number of different factors like transparency, energy make up, and efficiency.
Netflix received a “D” in part because it rarely makes public the composition of its energy usage, relies on Amazon Web Service’s servers which run on non-renewable fuels, and because of its lack of advocacy and leadership when it comes to greening data servers and ultimately the internet.
YouTube, on the other hand, received an “A” because it is owned and operated by Google, which has purchased over 2.5 Gigawatts of renewable energy for its data servers, has implemented tools like machine-learning in their centers to better streamline storage and recall, as well as committing to and being transparent about a 100% renewable goal for its energy demand.

Ultimately, the internet’s energy requirements are large and are only getting larger. If we’re not careful, this energy will mean more emissions and consumption of fossil fuels.
But, the internet also has the potential to not only be green but also, in the case of a commodity like DVDs, possibly help us do away with some excessive material economies.
Some tech companies, like Google, are working towards making data centers and infrastructure more efficient and greener. But a lot aren’t.
The internet can provide us with so much, but it will only be a positive environmental force when the engines at its core stop running on fuels of a past age.

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