Digitisation and its Discontents: Why the Internet Eats Our Energy - and How to Stop It.

by Florence Hazrat on 1 November 2018


The Cloud. It sounds so beautiful, so clean, a fluffy white mirage, wafting in the ether, intangible, untouchable, dispersing itself into nothing upon the lightest breath. Just like that, like those wondrous white shapes in the sky, do we imagine the computing cloud to be: a something-nothing that holds our emails, pictures, videos, music - in short, who we are - in its soft electronic embrace. A cumulus floating out there, at our fingertips when we want to; and when we don′t, it's simply shut away in our eternally capacious devices. Not even that, not even in our things, but just away, because which of us really grasps the magical mechanics of zero and one that encode our innermost thoughts, the uniqueness of our loved one's eyes?  And yet we have rapidly grown accustomed to the mind-boggling realities of infinitely small infinite storage capacity and light-speed retrieval. But how cloud-like pure is that age-old dream of ours, a memory that never forgets, a library (however truthful) a click away? It turns out, not pure at all. World-wide IT activity stinks of dirty coal-powered energy plants and human exploitation: we are ripping the bowels of the earth open for resources mined through child labour, and assembling devices in hyper-controlled Chinese factories whose working conditions would make any unionist turn in their grave. And all for putting that photo of our latest lunch on Facebook, and that buff gym selfie on Instagram. How did this addiction to electricity come about, and what can we do about it?

At first view, the electronification of everything, from communication, to media, contracts, and train tickets, seems like A Good Thing. It seems like IT saves trees. But not so. All the data that we use and produce needs to be stored somewhere, kept and cooled in giant energy-eating centres. Innumerable servers, holding that kitten YouTube video available for us and the millions of other users out there, need to be powered and cooled – with what? Wind energy? Solar? No. Coal, that Victorian relic, makes our twenty-first century machines run. A 2017 Greenpeace report reveals the shocking numbers of global IT-related energy consumption, adding up to 12% of world-wide electricity needs.[1] That's 3,5% of CO2 emissions. By 2040, it will have risen to up to 14%, 2% more than current aviation-related pollution. Or, if one thought of these 12% as a country, our clicks would rank third among global nations′ energy needs. Third. Just behind China and the US, with an annual growth of at least 7%. What kind of pollution does this voraciousness for electricity create? That largely depends on the companies' choice.

The Greenpeace report scrutinizes leading IT companies including Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Apple in more detail, investigating their choice of energy, transparency, advocacy of the issue, and their commitments. Apple fares best, having made strong green energy commitments in 2012. Its use of renewable energy amounts to 83%, with a requirement of 100% renewable energy for any new data centre and supplier. Apple has also been instrumental in taking leadership and pushing fellow companies and suppliers to move towards sustainable energy (rather than simply energy efficiency). It also puts governments under pressure to invest in renewables by strategically placing its data centres and offices in states that encourage sustainable energy resources. Facebook and Google follow suit, having begun to construct their own solar plants in California and elsewhere.

However, all is not as it should be in the world of infinite possibility: plenty of companies, such as the East Asian retailer Ali Baba and Chinese search engine Baidu, are almost entirely powered by coal and gas, and represent vast opportunities for improvement in the Asian market. Pinterest, Twitter, and Dropbox behave not much better. While the former two respectively use a mere 17 and 10 per cent renewable energy for their services, all three suffer from a chronic lack of transparency that seriously hampers any push for sustainable energy, either by governments or consumers. Dropbox is a particularly nefarious hoarder of information, releasing no clue as to their energy or site choices. Any requests remain either ignored or avoided, stating the company itself does not have that kind of information available, let alone for public release. How credible is such flagrant mismanagement from a global data giant? Or does Dropbox simply not want to give out any information, because it would mean they would have to commit to improvement?

With a staggering 63% of global internet traffic in 2015 and an estimated increase up to 80% by 2020, video streaming seems to become the single most energy-intensive online activity. Among streaming services, Netflix accounts for one third of North American streaming traffic, and is rapidly advancing as global provider. This Amazon daughter buys barely 17% of renewable energies, greatly outstripped by 30% of coal 24% of gas and 26% of nuclear energy. This disappointing reliance on toxic coal and gas is set only to harden and increase, considering Amazon's rapid growth of data centres in the US-state of Virginia whose energy-supply is provided to 99% by traditional means. Considering also that Virginia is, incidentally, home to 70% of all global data centres, it remains to be seen how green the recent revegetation of web and cloud actually is. 

Besides unimaginably significant tax cuts from governments, most, if not all, companies rely to vast degrees, sometimes exclusively, on old energy provision including coal, gas, biomass, and nuclear energy which cause harm to the environment, human health, and peace developments in conflict zones. They thus not only spurn the crucial role they could play as leaders into a pollution-free future, but actively destroy through their deliberate choice of dirty power to still their energy hunger. Our energy hunger.

So is the internet more bane than blessing? Not quite either. There are plenty of alternatives in the virtual world helping us to treat our real one better. Take Newmanity, for example, the free email-cum-cloud-server, drawing its energy from sustainable sources. Or Cleanfox, a service helping you free your inbox from unwanted and unnecessary subscription emails that not only clog our box but also devour energy to keep them clogging. Then there is Ecosia, the alternative search engine that devotes 80% of add-related income to planting trees in developing countries, and that, since its founding in 2009, has by now planted 40 million trees. Websites like Rank a Brand and Ethical Consumer help you in sorting out the good from the bad, when it comes to ethical shopping. With apps such as Buycott you can scan the barcode of products while browsing in the shop and find out if they belong to titans of rainforest destruction like Nestlé.

We customers are under-estimating the power and agency we have, because what keeps Amazon and Apple bulldozing habitats and exploiting workers is our use of them, our dependence. So rather than a new iphone, we have the choice to buy a Fairphone, for example, a smart phone whose material stems from non-conflict zone mines that do not employ children. It is assembled in factories in China under fair working conditions and fair wages, and its design is easily repairable. Why enslave ourselves to unethical polluting companies? We are free to place our consumer choice deliberately, to encourage accountability, responsible management, and fair conditions for the natural world and our fellow human beings. Digital discontent needs not remain so. Let the cloud rain to green the earth.

Readers may be interested further information, available on the website: ethicalconsumer.org

Florence is the editor of Environment and Postgraduate sections for the new Lucy Writers’ Platform, and co-editor of the Books section. If you are interested in writing for these sections or any other please contact her on: florence.hazrat@gmail.com. If you'd like to read more of Florence's work, you can visit her website here: florencehazrat.com

[1] All information taken from here: http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/click-clean/#top. [accessed 16 October 2018].

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