Limiting the digital economy's ecological footprint is possible

Published on Sunday, 27 December 2015

It’s hard to believe the smartphone we all carry around in our pockets consumes more energy in a year than a refrigerator! It may not be news, but the fact that 10% of the world’s electricity is a consumed by the ICT ecosystem (that is, information and communication technologies, also known as the digital economy) is still amazing.

ICT’s electricity consumption is huge and still growing, as noted in 2013 by Digital Power Group CEO Mark Mills in a report with a revealing title: The Cloud Begins with Coal. Even technologies that appear ephemeral and “light” such as browsing the internet, watching videos in streaming, listening to music and downloading data 24 hours a day have a real impact on the environment. According to Mills’ report, the digital economy consumes the same amount of electricity as was used to light up the entire planet in 1985. And the figure is destined to grow as ICT technology advances: there will soon be more internet traffic in a single hour than there was in the entire year 2000. And as economical smartphones become more and more common, by 2020 80% of the world’s adult population will be connected to the Internet, and by 2018 the number of devices in circulation will be twice the world’s population.

What lies behind all this data traffic is consumption of huge amounts of energy by data centres hosting IT servers. Servers that never rest – how could we even think of shutting off the Internet at certain times of day? – to allow our computers, telephones, tablets and other devices to stay connected non-stop. The cost of the energy required to maintain the data centres is high: servers need to be powered, cooled down, and stored in buildings which are almost always used exclusively for this purpose: a major ecological challenge, especially for the key players on the web.

From supplying data centres with electricity from local sources such as solar panels or wind energy to purchasing clean energy from a local utility, solutions are already appearing, and companies such as Apple are setting a good example. A recent Greenpeace report offered some interesting information on the ecological footprint of the companies that store the most data in their data centres, and the Cupertino company turned out to be the greenest of them all. Though continually growing, all its data centres continue to be supplied by green energy, and the company has expressed a precise intention of expanding its green policies to include its production processes in China. One step below Apple is Facebook, which has made great progress over the past three years, becoming a leader in ecological Internet policy, supplying its data centres in Oregon and North Carolina with energy from renewable sources. Google is also among the top green companies, continuing to invest in achievement of its target of using ‘100% green’ energy in its data centres, though the company still has some way to go. “Our data centres consume 50% less energy than conventional data centres,” claims the company: that’s good, but surely Google can do better! Amazon Web Services is one of the lower-ranking companies in the list, for though it is one of the most important companies dominating the Cloud market, Amazon needs to do better to keep up with its competitors.

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