Energy and the Cloud
How Much Energy Does The Internet and The Cloud Use?
As consumers, we are very aware of the energy used when we drive cars, put the lights on, or the heating, but we generally don’t pay the same mind to our internet usage. “We tend to think of the internet as something ephemeral – partly thanks to terms like “web” and “cloud” – but the servers that host all that data produce huge amounts of emissions, leaving giant carbon footprints behind.” – the Conversation
Perhaps our individual use of the internet only uses a small amount of energy, but the vast quantity of people using internet constantly creates a larger effect. While the energy needed for an internet search or email may be small, with over 50% of the global population now using the internet, this amounts to a lot of energy being used (BBC). According to nature.com, “data centres use an estimated 200-terawatt hours (TWh) each year. That is more than the national energy consumption of some countries, including Iran, but half of the electricity used for transport worldwide”. As data is so new, with 90% of data being created in the last two years, our reliance on it and cloud computing services increases constantly (Path Zero). Additionally, as data and internet become more accessible across the globe, the percentage of global electricity demand accounted for by data is expected to rise from 10% to 20% by 2030 (OVO energy).
Due to the pandemic, internet use has massively increased as many people began working from home using online meetings instead of having them in person. Therefore, the amount of energy being used by data centres has increased. Additionally, internet and data usage create a large carbon footprint. This is created by not only our devices such as smartphones, laptops and TVs, but the devices that keep them working and connected, such as satellites and data centres (OVO energy). While data centres contribute approximately 0.3% to carbon emissions, the information and communications technology industry as a whole, including all devices, contributes more than 2% of global emissions. This makes it equal to the aviation industry in terms of carbon footprint (nature.com).
Some appliances of the internet have a more harmful environmental effect than others. According to the BBC, watching videos online accounts for the largest percentage of internet traffic, generating 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Scrolling social media, however, has a much lower impact. “According to Facebook’s sustainability report, a user’s annual carbon footprint is 299g CO2e, which is less than boiling the water for a pot of tea” (BBC). Therefore, consumers are able to lessen their environmental impact through the ways in which they choose to browse the internet.
There are several ways in which both data companies and consumers can help to reduce their energy use and carbon output. For example, data providers can switch to renewable energy sources, like Google who have announced their “goal to achieve 24/7 renewable energy-powered data centres by 2030”- The Conversation. Additionally, Web designers could take a more minimalistic approach, reducing the quantity of images, videos and different fonts which require more energy to load (The Conversation). Consumers can limit the time they spend watching videos online, gaming or browsing, and opt for offline forms of entertainment instead. Deleting unwanted images and files from the cloud can also help reduce data usage.
However, when considering the environmental impact of our data usage, it is important to balance the environmental harm with the advantages of internet technologies. For example, the development of information technology is making other areas much more efficient and reducing their environmental impact. Equally, the internet has vastly improved our access to information regarding climate change and our carbon footprint which allows us to make more informed choices to save our planet.
There are many positives and drawbacks to the development and use of data and internet. They have a large environmental effect, using large amounts of energy and creating a carbon footprint. However, they also allow us to develop more energy efficient solutions for other industries, and provide us with the tools to be informed about climate change and learn how to make a difference.
Our internet usage and the environmental impact we don't think about (pathzero.com)
Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think - BBC Future
What is Your Online Carbon Footprint and How to Reduce it? | OVO Energy
How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity (nature.com)
The Untold Truth Between Our Internet Usage and Its Contribution to Climate Change | Green Journal