While the World is Going Online, the Earth May Be Going Down

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Several problems are being talked about when it comes to the Internet. We speak about one’s addiction to it, about the isolation it provokes – all connected, but all alone – about the risks of our data being stolen or the risks of buying online with a credit card. More rarely, we speak about Internet and its environmental impact. Has it ever occurred to you that while you are browsing the World Wide Web, there is a big charge of electricity coursing across the world to bring you the pages and documents you ask for? And I’m not talking only about the power your computer is consuming at the moment – as a fun statistic, a small laptop produces around 8 grams of CO2 per hour. While the world is going online, the earth may be going down.

Let’s look at one of the Internet’s main problem: it’s getting bigger and bigger! Not all websites were created equal of course; some websites “weigh” more and generate more traffic than others. Think about some of your ‘favourite’ websites. All around the world, more than 200 million emails are being sent every minute generating a huge amount of traffic and of storage as well. The problem here is that 81 percent of those are spam, not only becoming a waste of time but also of energy. Facebook, with its one billion users, also ‘pollutes’ a lot. You don’t need to look further back than 2006 when, fearing that their servers would overheat, they went and bought all the air conditioners they could find. Not exactly the recipe for environment awareness! While people use Facebook a lot, they also have accounts on Google+ and Twitter or they upload their pictures on Flickr, which each have their own servers.  72 percent of Facebook’s footprint comes from its data servers but they are implanting those servers in colder countries like Sweden in order to reduce the air conditioning uses.

One might however argue that the pictures and texts do not need a lot of energy to be transported to your computer and I might agree, but let’s have a look at the number one video website, Google’s Youtube. On this platform, more than 60 hours of videos are uploaded every minute and those videos are then accessed more than four billion times per day. To this, we must add the increasing size of the clouds that pop up a little everywhere on the internet (Dropbox, Sugarsync…). People tend to put all their files online, so that they can access them from wherever they are. We have now access to music through several shops that all need to store their data somewhere, sometimes even in several places in order for the file to be downloaded more quickly. In essence, the quick convenience of our lifestyle is creating quite a large environmental problem.

If you add the 1,000 million smartphones that are now used in the world, you will get an overall idea of the explosion of our internet’s consumption. Actually, mobile internet wins 217 users every minute and 47,000 apps are downloaded on the App Store every minute. This new charge on the web is also consuming energy, mainly through batteries, which are then recharged from nowhere else but a socket in the wall. In fact, Apple doesn’t really seem to be too concerned with their environmental footprint except for the numbers that appear on the product’s package. According to their website, they try to reduce their impact by making their products more energy efficient, but nowhere do they talk about investments or compensation for the environment. In fact, Apple only just bowed to peer pressure and released its first-ever corporate sustainability report this year.

However, it may not be as bad as it seem. Let’s look at Google who invested a lot of money in more efficient data centers and in renewable energy. If you have a look at their presentation of their data centers, you will see that the environmental question is important for them. Their servers are energy-efficient and use recycled materials. However, what isn’t written on their presentation site is that they are also planning to increase the size of their data centers from 1 million to 10 million machines. And though it is advocated that other companies should follow the example of Google, it is however unclear the quantity – or quality – of work they’ve done until now.

Do not get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should stop using the internet. It is great and it has definitely played an important role in our lives! After all, you couldn’t read this article here any other way! But we surely should think about the impact of being online all the time and using big online files. To satisfy the impressive numbers mentioned for each website above we need a huge amount of electricity and resources. Has it ever occurred to you that your online data, pages, videos aren’t actually one click away? In fact, there are stored on servers that consume a lot of energy because they turned on 24/7, need air conditioning among others and strong security management.

The point here is that using the internet has an impact on the environment, and not only the electricity consumption of your computer, and it is something that we need to be cognisant of. Data servers companies like Google – who made 37.9 billion dollars in revenue in 2011 – should maybe start paying taxes for their environmental impact or at least, try to invest into research to improve servers’ efficiency, especially when we know that two percent of the world’s entire electricity consumption is used only for the internet to work. Reducing our consumption of electricity is nowadays very important, and surely, investing money in servers, like Google does, is surely a good way to reduce global consumption, but we should also be aware that our use of internet has an impact on the environment.

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