Ecological impaces of the virtual web
The Internet is our access to knowledge, our connection to one another, our source of entertainment and, more recently, the place where we store all of the essential data of our existence.
The Internet has trained its users to be deeply connected to it, as author and professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Michael P. Lynch, writes in The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. To google something is not seen as bringing in a third-party tool to help find the answer, but instead as a vital part of the process of thought and reason in the first place. Like any good technological breakthrough, the Internet has swiftly made the near past feel like distant history. And like any good invention, it has rapidly made people depend on it for some aspect of their lives. The World Wide Web goes beyond previous inventions, however, as our dependence on it is not static — in fact, it seems to grow every year. While the Internet does feed society’s everlasting thirst for knowledge, while satisfying our desire for convenience, it does so at a potential cost to the planet.
Starting at the Heart of Tech Companies
A few years ago a cyber-rumor began circulating that two Google searches cost about the same in carbon-emissions as boiling a kettle of water. In other words, every Google search allegedly emitted about seven grams of carbon dioxide. Google has gone on to dispute this claim, calculating one search to equal about .2 grams of carbon dioxide. As stated on Google’s blog, “Thus, the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.”
Wherever the most accurate figure falls, this discussion highlights the importance of looking closely at the effect daily activities have on the environment. This analysis begins at the heart of tech companies: data centers.
Making searches on Google, sending emails through Microsoft Outlook and browsing through statuses and pictures on Facebook are all made possible by the energy exerted by each individual company’s servers. These servers are contained in data centers.
Keeping servers running requires a whole lot of electricity, but the greatest deal of energy and electricity is spent on around-the-clock air conditioning to prevent the machines from overheating. More users going online and spending longer online, means more energy spent on running as well as cooling these servers. Perhaps the heaviest burden on servers and databases comes from the weight of online storage through the “cloud”. One of the newest and fastest growing technological phenomenons, millions of people use some sort of cloud or drive to store their personal data, documents, photos and music. Whether it’s through Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon or another tech company, these services are becoming increasingly prevalent and seemingly necessary in this age of information.
Based on the name alone, one might think of these various clouds as levitating, gaseous concentrations of data hovering somewhere above Earth’s atmosphere. The reality is quite different. To allow for as many users as possible, tech companies must build their data centers to be as big as possible, and they must fit as many servers into the space as possible.
Data centers are architectural behemoths, accounting for 7 percent of global electricity. They are also huge consumers of water if they use equipment, known as water-side economizers, which sends warm water from inside the center outside into cooling towers, which chills the water and then sends it back into the center in order to cool down the servers. In 2014, the combined amount of water used for United States data centers was 626 billion liters. Further, in the early development of data centers environmental groups were especially critical of data centers. Most of this criticism came from companies’ slow start to make the switch to renewable energies, instead building centers in the midwest to exploit cheap coal prices.
Greenpeace graded the leading tech companies on transparency in a 2011 report. Google, Amazon and Twitter all got Fs for varying degrees of withholding information about facility size, location and greenhouse gas output.
Google received flak in 2008 when it needed enough energy equivalent to 83,000 homes just to power one of their operations in The Dalles, Oregon. Some have denounced terms like “the cloud” as a marketing distraction from the very industrial, earthbound constructions these companies were using.
As time has permitted the Internet to offer us even more than we previously may have conceived possible, it has also allowed tech companies to make great improvements on their energy efficiency. In 2016, Greenpeace gave significantly better grades to almost all the leading tech companies in their more recent “report card.” Their assessment has gone from critical and disappointed to laudatory and pleased.
Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explains that these improvements are not necessarily for altogether altruistic or environmentally conscious reasons. “They’re designed to be efficient because that’s better for their bottom line… the payback period for putting in really efficient stuff almost always makes sense,” Shehabi said.
While these companies understandably prefer and hint at the image of being efficient because of altruism, they certainly have made being more environmentally friendly a focal point in their new innovations. A quick browse on Google’s website proves this point, boasting that they have constructed the most energy efficient data centers in the world, and that their commitment to sustainable energy is a core value of their company. Microsoft and Apple also have made it a point of promising their customers that they are by no means climate change deniers, and are heavily investing in greener methods of doing business.
Both Google and Microsoft boast of being totally carbon neutral for the past several years, and other companies have reported drastically cutting down on their own carbon footprints. Some still question the reliability of these claims. In February of 2016, research firm Lux Research published findings that Google and Amazon, among others, have been using outdated measuring methods which underestimate their actual carbon footprint by 30 percent or more. Companies typically use the EPA’s Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID), while Lux Research claims they have created their own, more accurate, analytical tool.
Ginger Strand, who critiqued Google’s data centers in her 2008 article for Harper’s Magazine, “Keyword: Evil,” recognizes companies’ improvements in environmental sustainability. However, she feels it is likely that these improvements may be outweighed by the great increase in Internet usership over recent years.
It is important to note that the information industry titans’ data centers are not the only ones worth investigating. In fact, it is often companies whose main purpose is not technology-based that make the most egregious energy decisions. Smaller data centers can often have the most flaws in terms of efficiency. Shehabi said this is because they do not have the monetary incentive to become efficient the way Google, Microsoft and Apple do. For this reason, researchers find a great deal of waste in the way they run their centers.
Defining the Future
Calculating the greenness of the Internet is not an easy thing to do, and it cannot all be done by observing the efficiency of data centers.
A large part of what research scientists in this field do is try to determine where the energy inefficiency is coming from in a given system. In most cases, the devices being used by people at home are the biggest culprits.
The growing number of devices found in any given household or workplace, and the fact that they are not necessarily designed with efficiency in mind — as larger scale factors like data centers are — make them an important link which should not be ignored when considering the Internet chain of energy systems.
Shehabi believes it is simply too early to say that more people going online more often is decidedly better or worse for the environment. At this stage, a case-by-case analysis is required. In some cases, using an online cloud or streaming service may be replacing a less sustainable activity. Shehabi provides the example of watching a movie on Netflix. This is going to cost less in CO2 emissions than instead driving your car a few miles to a video store to buy a movie which had to be manufactured in a factory and shipped to the store via several modes of transportation.
But this potential is no blank check. If a smaller-scale company using less-efficient data centers offers a service allowing people to do something they were not doing beforehand, then this increases the amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Shehabi highlights three critical components of making the Internet a beneficial industry for our climate instead of yet another problem.
Firstly, the Internet should be used as a “tool.” It should be channeled in a way that replaces higher-carbon activities but not interfere with lower-carbon activities. As a tool, it is also going to have to be continually updated and improved. The number of people going online and signing up for cloud and streaming services is growing, this is going to require companies to be increasingly vigilant to ensure the number of users does not outweigh increases in energy and carbon efficiency.
The second component is eliminating wasteful energy. Past studies have estimated up to 30% of servers in the US are running but not actually performing any job. These “zombie” servers have to go.
Perhaps most importantly is the position tech companies, and any company using a data center, are in to become leaders in switching to all renewables. The nature of their services requires their huge facilities to run 24/7. The benefit of these companies getting off carbon completely is essential to protecting the climate.
The Internet alone will not define the health of the climate. The future will instead be defined by people; how we design this new and powerful tool, whether we can use it in the most effective ways and if we can remember that every search, click and like has an effect on the planet.
Owen Walsh is a second-year journalism major who googled the majority of his sources for this article. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org