Every web search sends 10 grams of carbon into the environment, making the internet one of the most polluting “industries” in the world.
One of the most empowering and significant human developments, the Web is also one of the most destructive. Facebook (which eggs on eating disorders) and Twitter played an enormous role in the revolution that de-seated Hosni Mubarak, and worldwide people have unprecedented access to information. Green Prophet depends on the internet to share important news that brings us and our readers closer to a more sustainable future.
There is no doubt, seedy sites aside, that the internet is a remarkable tool. Craiglist search for instance helps us find housing and jobs. But all those online searches are also killing our planet. At present, every web search sends up to 10 grams of carbon into the atmosphere. That number multiplied by millions of shares, tweets, billions of emails, and one billion Google searches every day amounts to greenhouse gas emissions that soar almost as as high as the aviation industry.
Giant energy-guzzling data centers
The Vancouver Sun reported that the world wide web consumes up to 2-3% of the world’s energy, more than India or Germany. Not taking into consideration the energy that nearly 7 billion connected users consume to run their electronics, the web’s carbon footprint is mostly spent on massive data centers.
Apple, Google, and Facebook have all set up their information powerhouses in North Carolina, the American state that charges the lowest fees for electricity at just 5.8 cents per watt of energy. Apple’s new, sprawling $1 billion, 46,000 square meter iData Center will consume 100MW of electricity, while Google’s facility uses 60-100MW, and Facebook 40MW.
So what’s the big deal? North Carolina derives the bulk of its energy from coal, the world’s cheapest and dirtiest energy source. That means that every Google search and Facebook share, which is processed by these mega data centers (some times as big as 5 Walmart centers, according to the Sun), is powered mostly by coal.
As connectivity expands, more data centers have to be built, which need more power to run and cool them. Mark Zuckerberg recently opened a new data center in Oregon that is more energy efficient than earlier generations, and he has open-sourced his plans so that other data centers around the world can follow suit.
Carbon tax and emission caps
But specialists are concerned that energy efficiency will not stem the trouble that these power-hungry facilities will cause our already warming planet. Bill St. Arnaud, a Green IT consultant in Ottawa, told the paper that governments need to raise tariffs on dirty energy sources and impose carbon taxes and emissions caps. Until this happens, service providers like Apple and Google will have no incentive to source cleaner energy for their data centers.
Lest we think it’s not possible to make the switch, GreenStar Network first launched in Canada relies only on clean and renewable energy for their emails and tweets. And demonstrating the demand for smarter internet connectivity, the company exploded, growing from 5 data centers in Canada to an additional 15 in Europe and the United States, and with more on the way for China (the country with the largest number of Internet users) and Africa.
It’s not that the market isn’t ready for cleaner searches, according to Arnaud, since demand is clearly very high. But can GreenStar find the requisite number of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power plants to meet this demand?
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image via Henry Swanson 420