The Internet has traditionally been viewed as a ‘Green’ alternative to traditional activities which use tons of paper and non-renewable energy. However, most of us tend to overlook the fact that infrastructures are needed to support the internet. Most of the net activities are powered by large scale energy and water intensive collections of interface devices that produce the web.
A typical 50,000 square feet data center which is used to reside web servers consumes around 5 MW of power and this 5 MW is enough to power 5,000 houses. Of course, there are data centers that use pervasively more power. For example, Microsoft’s data center in Chicago alone occupies 700, 000 square feet of land. Not forgetting their data centers around the world. Not forgetting companies like Google, Microsoft and many others are aggressively expanding their infrastructure. In 2008, Bill Gates stated that Microsoft will be looking into many millions of servers to power their online services. Research revealed that 700 billion kWh of energy had been produced by 2 billion internet users as at 2010. According to the growth rate, if this rate remains unchanged, it is predicted that the entire world would be online around 2017.
Apart from traditional data centers, green data centers with 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency can have power savings equivalent to the output from an entire 1,000 megawatt power plant. Yet we must acknowledge that despite being energy efficient, data center still relies on energy produced primarily from coal and other non-renewable sources to a certain extent, which means that it is still environmental unfriendly. Over exploiting of Earth’s sources, especially the non-renewable ones come with a steep price: ecosystem destruction, wildlife extinction, global warming and more.
However, since the digital world is still relatively young, little blame internet for the energy from burning and trying to understand the environment impact of internet is still a challenge. Moreover, very few scientific studies are done on the focus of internet’s ecological impacts.
Besides infrastructures, production of interface devices also has a considerable impact on the environment. From raw material extraction, material production, part production and assembly, all have real environmental and human costs at every part of the process. On top of that, in assessing the environmental impact of the internet, it is absolutely necessary to consider the life cycle of these devices when they obsolete. When consumers replace old electronic products with newer versions, many of the discarded products could end up in landfills. This is an environment concern because electronic products contain a mix of toxic components such as lead, mercury, cadmium or polyvinyl chlorides, which are released to the environment when incinerated or buried in a landfill. For instance, a convention computer monitor alone contains four to eight pounds of lead, and newer LCD screens contain mercury. With upward of 300 million computers and 1 billion hand phones manufactured each year, the problem is not going away. According to UN figures, around 40 million tons of eWaste are produced annually. Currently, only 20 percent of eWaste is channeled through municipal drop off sites or companies that offer disposal services. Even with such services, there is no way to guarantee that the waste will be disposed properly.
I do acknowledge that there are environment benefits of internet. For instance, online shopping reduces carbon footprint for travelling, reading documents online is paperless and many more. But to be honest, to what extent does these uses of internet really replace our daily activities. Studies had shown that with 40% of US workforce working from home twice a week, carbon emissions would be greatly reduced by 53 million metric tons a year, which is equivalent to taking 10 million cars off the road. However, how many of the people actually work from home?
Consequences of over-tapping on Earth’s resources are undesirable. Personally, I feel that Internet can be as harmful as mining and deforestation etc. While the world is globalizing, resources, at the same time, are depleting exponentially far before they can be replenished. Although now we know that internet can also be damaging, yet minimum can be done to resolve. Moreover, it is unpractical and unrealistic to move backwards, to the era where least technology is used. Nevertheless, whether one is the head of an organization or just an individual web surfer, it is important to at least be aware that using the internet is not “carbon neutral”. All of us are accountable for our conducts on and off the net with human and ecological welfare in mind.
Last but not least, here are some things you might not know…