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3 May 2019

Climate Change – the Effect of Digital Technologies

Tag(s): Sustainability, Technology
In the past few weeks there has been considerable media coverage of climate change, largely thanks to the new protest movement Extinction Rebellion. This was founded by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and while its proposed solutions to the problems of global warming are naïve and unrealistic in the extreme their raising of the issue is welcome and they are right to say how urgent the problem is. Dame Emma Thompson was ridiculed for flying in to London from Los Angeles to join in the protest and rightly so, but in all the coverage of the story I never saw any mention of one of the most threatening industries in the cause of global warming. While aviation accounts for about 2% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) accounted for double that, and of course it is growing very fast.  I suspect that Extinction Rebellion has largely grown as fast as it has through social media and other ICT applications, but I did not hear any of the protesters saying they were prepared to give that up. If they really want us to commit to zero emissions then they have to give up their beloved Facebook accounts.

We tend to forget about this, but every web search, every email sent or received, and every status update on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat or whatever the latest fad is, means the consumption of electricity and therefore the emission of greenhouse gases. The excessive consumption of electricity required to make the internet work is partly due to structural or design problems. Thus, web infrastructures are oversized in order to respond to peak usage. A router, for example, generally operates at 60% of its capacity. But even when inactive, these devices consume almost as much energy as when they‘re running at full capacity, and no provision is made for switching them off during off-peak hours. Broadband boxes installed in the home have no stop buttons and operate day and night. Why? They usually take 90 seconds to come on, initialise and connect, and the suppliers believe that we as consumers do not have the patience to wait so long every day.

When we connect to the internet from our smart phone or lap top or whatever device we are probably connecting to Loudoun County in Virginia, one of the largest concentrations of computing power in the world. Because of its proximity to Washington DC, competitive electricity prices and its low susceptibilty to natural disasters, the county is the home of data centres used by about 3,000 tech companies. About 70% of the world’s online traffic is reckoned to pass through Loudoun County. The vast majority of the electricity is supplied by a power company called Dominion. According to a 2017 Greenpeace report, only 1% of Dominion’s total electricity comes from credibly renewable sources; 2% comes from hydroelectric plants and the rest is evenly split between coal, gas and nuclear power.

While there has been real progress in reducing the carbon footprint in mature industries like heating and transportation, there has been no such progress in ICT, quite the reverse. A study in Japan suggests that by 2030, the power requirements of digital services will outstrip the nation’s entire current generation capacity. The biggest area of growth is in video which uses many times the data of voice. Using either a tablet or smartphone to wirelessly watch an hour of video a week uses roughly the same amount of electricity (largely consumed at the data-centre end of the process) as two new domestic refrigerators. The trend to watch TV on streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime is another disaster as this consumes vastly more electricity than watching traditionally broadcast TV channels. Up until 2003 the world had accumulated a total of five exabytes – five billion gigabytes – of stored digital content. By 2015 that amount was being consumed every two days, as annual consumption reached 870 exabytes. It has trebled since. And the major providers of video streaming content including Netflix and Amazon Prime source more than half their energy from coal or natural gas.

The development of the internet of things will again accelerate these changes in direct conflict with the Paris Agreement. There is an increasing array of everyday devices from TVs, through domestic security devices to lighting systems and countless modes of transport that constantly emit and receive data. Unfortunately the language of ICT does not help people understand the impact of these technologies. People talk about ‘virtual’ states and the ‘cloud’. But these things burn hot and emit massive tonnes of greenhouse gases.  On the Today programme one of their inane presenters was talking about Britain reaching zero emissions by 2050 by “eating less meat and driving electric cars”. But electric cars merely move the source of the emissions from the tailpipe in the vehicle to the power station from where the vehicle is charged. If the power station is burning coal or gas then nothing has changed. And if we all scrap our cars before the end of their natural life to buy a brand new electric vehicle then the carbon footprint in the manufacture of that vehicle must be factored in to our equation.

While transportation works hard to improve its carbon efficiency, partly driven by regulation and government targets, the extraordinary growth in ICT has no such limits. Worse the growth is mostly incremental. The hope that ICT will help reduce the global carbon footprint by substituting physical activities with ‘virtual’ counterparts is illusory. And smartphones make up a disproportionate share of this growth. The lion’s share of this growth (85% - 95%) is caused not by the use of the device, but rather by its production. That includes, in addition to the manufacturing and distribution energy, the energy in mining for gold and rare-earth elements like yttrium, lanthanum, and several others that today are almost exclusively available only from China.

A recent report by the French carbon emission think-tank The Shift Project makes many of the points I have brought out here but in addition:
  • Recharging frequency remains more or less constant despite the fact that battery power has increased by 50% in five years.
  • The explosion of data traffic – especially video traffic from on demand streaming and cloud gaming – is occurring at a rate that surpasses energy efficiency gains in equipment, networks and data centres. These traffic forecasts are also regularly revised upwards.
  • Most of the growth in the data flows is attributable to the consumption of services provided by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and their Chinese counterparts. In some cases it can represent 80% of the traffic carried on the networks of certain operators.
  • The traffic growth is so strong it raises the question as to the capacity available to ensure sufficient industrial production in terms of storage equipment by 2020. (But then maybe that’s not a bad thing).
They add that “the current trend for digital overconsumption in the world is not sustainable with respect to the supply of energy and materials it requires.” Energy intensity of the digital industry in the world is only increasing (4% p.a.), contrary to conventional industrial growth, which is becoming less energy intensive by 1.8% p.a.

So if you want to help combat global warming stop replacing your phone every two years. Phone plans that encourage consumers to get a new smartphone every two years accelerate the rate at which older models become obsolete and lead to an extraordinary and unnecessary amount of waste. We should be demanding that data centres are run exclusively on renewable energy and we should hold on to our smartphones as long as possible. My Blackberry is nearly four years old and when it packs in I have some even older ones I can use. That means I can run a SIM only plan at about £12 per month.

I am, of course, conscious of the irony that I am using the internet to communicate this blog. So what can we as individuals do to slow down this ghastly trend? Well, here are a few suggestions:
  1. Reduce the size of the documents you send by email to reduce the weight of the message.
  2. Use hypertext links rather than an attachment and compress large documents.
  3. Don’t spread chain mail, petitions, humorous images, fakes, hoaxes or gossip.
  4. Regularly delete emails that have been dealt with and don’t forget to empty the bin.
  5. Unsubscribe from newsletters you don’t read.
  6. Enter the address of a website if you know it rather than going through a search engine.
  7. Cut down on the number of pages you view by using specific keywords.
  8. Bookmark your regularly viewed websites.
  9. Make regular use of your smartphone’s optimisation feature that stops apps (sometimes several dozen) running unnecessarily in the background and empties unnecessarily occupied memory space without erasing any of your data.
  10. Avoid the “Reply all” button unless really necessary.

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