How much does the Internet contribute to global warming and can we switch to carbon neutral servers?

visiting cleantech operations, finland

A group of international bloggers from cleantech media, Grist, Treehugger and Green Prophet visiting a power plant in Finland. Green Prophet’s Karin, 8 months pregnant is on the right.

Ten years ago I was flown into Helsinki with a handful of other bloggers, from Grist, TreeHugger, Greentech Media. We were to spend several days in Finland learning about its bold and practical solutions to doing better business by the environment. 

We met a factory that was developing heat pumps to be used in homes and offices. We learned about the sauna culture (they calculate money earned in terms of how many saunas you could buy with the money), the good Finnish sense of humor, and the most inspiring was a large server station built under a cathedral in Helsinki. 

Nothing I saw there was flat out wow hightech, like what you can find in Silicon Valley or Israel, but they were solutions that worked and were already seeing sales. 

How much do servers burden the environment?

The data center we saw drew so much light on the weight of our media addictions. It’s considered one of the world’s most strange data centers in that is built deep below ground under a cathedral. Using cool sea water to keep the temperatures low in the summer and a heat pump that warms Helsinki buildings and their water (it’s cold there even in summer!), it’s a practical Finnish carbon neutralizing solution to keep the energy bills down. 

Entertainment industry is probably one of the largest consumers of bandwidth and storage. Data centres now consume around 3% of the global electricity supply. Everyone in the entertainment industry, social media and online gaming business is pushing their part to make their business more carbon neutral. 

Sometimes this comes from within the gaming companies like Bettson that runs Live Casino. They have made some steps toward environmental conservation by planting a million trees in Malta, in a partnership with the QLZH Foundation to become a ‘Tree Partner’. That’s a good solution and effort in offsetting server carbon. 

According to Quartz and their report on a Greenpeace study, media consumption from sites like Hulu, Netflix or Amazon prime do not get the green grade, while Youtube does outperform everyone with more than 50% use of renewable energy. Netflix and Hulu score a D and an F. 

So there is room to grow. 

How can you do your part in reducing server emissions?

While you can’t actually control where the server of the streaming site or gaming page is located, you can do a few tricks to reduce emissions when you are playing or watching.  According to this Nature study data centers built for companies like Facebook and Apple can use a whole country’s worth of energy. 

Converting old technology to newer hyperscale servers is one way companies can improve energy consumption, the report mentions, but also locating and building servers in cooler climates, letting the naturally cool environs blow over the servers that need constant air conditioning to avoid a meltdown and losing your holiday photos. 

As for you, the everyday person, you could watch less Netflix or take fewer photos?

Who gets the best grade in energy consumption? Youtube is doing the best with more than 50% renewable energy.

The Nature article is doubtful consumers will respond favorably to the idea:

Cutting back our thirst for data might be the ultimate way to prevent energy use going into hyperdrive. But it’s hard to see anyone agreeing to, say, limit their Netflix use, which accounts for more than one-third of Internet traffic in the United States. 

Banning high-definition colour cameras on phones alone could reduce data traffic in Europe by 40%, says Ian Bitterlin, a consulting engineer and data-centre expert in Cheltenham, UK. But, he adds, no one seems likely to dare to institute such rules. 

“We can’t put the lid back on Pandora’s box,” he says. “But we could reduce data-centre power.”

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