The Internet’s Big Carbon Footprint Need Not Doom the Climate

Lambert here: Lost in all the gee-whizzery of ginormous data centers is the question of the purpose to which the data is put. How much of it, for example, is due to social media? How much due to… prOn? Humanity got along perfectly well without the vast bulk of that data for millennia. Why do we need this much? Indeed, under financialization, one might argue the more data, the worse the quality of life. Maybe it’s time to do away with the idea of infinite storage? Then again, I suppose the same might have been said in Gutenberg’s day… All those books! Who needs ’em? You geeks get offa my lawn!

On another note, I apologize for the lack of an original post. I’m stomping on the CDC’s report on school re-opening, and it is taking me longer than I thought it would to sort through the plethora of sources they cite. But I “best not miss.”

By Samantha Harrington, journalist and graphic designer at Yale Climate Connections. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections.

For many, people life moved online in 2020. From preschool to dissertation defenses, first dates to weddings, video calls brought us together. To entertain ourselves, we streamed concerts and movies, played video games, and scrolled social media.

Demand for internet services was already rising before the COVID-19 pandemic, and growth will continue once people are able to gather safely in person again. That’s raising concerns about the electricity needed to power servers, networks, and devices – and the resulting consequences for the climate.

Eric Masanet, a professor in sustainability science for emerging technologies at UC Santa Barbara, says the internet sector accounts for 2 to 4% of global energy use. Data centers alone are estimated to account for 1% of global energy demand, more than many countries use.

But Masanet said it is not helpful to bash people over their internet use.

“You shouldn’t feel bad about it – about working from home, about streaming more, about sending emails,” he said. “People should know that they don’t have to feel guilty about using digital technology.”

So far, improved energy efficiency has helped check the internet’s power consumption despite soaring demand. And a switch to renewable sources of electricity could make it more climate-friendly. Large technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have all been investing in renewable energy projects. But experts say it is hard to monitor how effective this transition is because the leading technology companies are large, opaque, and largely unregulated.

Data Centers Are Major Energy Consumers

Power-hungry data centers are buildings or spaces housing the computers and communications hardware that store, process and transmit the data that run the internet. Everything you do on the internet is connected to data centers.

“Data centers are the backbone of the applications, really the backbone of the cloud, of enterprise computing, so everything that is fundamental to an organization runs through a data center,” said Shawn Mills, founder and CEO of Lunavi, which started out as a green data center company and has grown into also providing other digital services.

Traditional data centers were often rooms within offices of companies needing computing power. Some organizations still use on-site data centers, but most computing now is done in large, standalone facilities called hyperscale data centers. Big tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft control most such data centers around the world.

Netflix, for example, uses Amazon Web Services to run its application. So when you are streaming a Netflix movie or series, it is delivered via an Amazon data center somewhere in the world – maybe in northern Virginia, a major hub for hyperscale data centers.

As internet use increases, the hyperscale data center business is booming. According to a report by Synergy Research Group, by the end of 2019, there were 504 large data centers in operation – triple the number in 2013 – and another 151 were being planned or built. In 2019, Amazon and Microsoft together accounted for half of the new data centers in development.

Data centers consume a lot of energy. The servers and other devices need constant, reliable power, and the electronic equipment needs constant cooling. Understanding the energy and emissions use is difficult because many technology companies are not transparent. Renee Obringer, an environmental engineer with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, said the lack of data was a concern to a team she worked with to analyze the carbon footprint of the internet.

“So far there isn’t much in the tech industry. If they do release stuff, it’s generally because they have chosen to do that and they think it will be good for their business,” she said. “Google has released a lot of information on their data centers and that’s largely because Google is very advanced in the technology they’re using to make sure their data centers are as efficient as possible.”

Efficiency Is Growing With Demand

The dearth of transparent data forces researchers to resort to complex analyses and models. Still, they say that even as demand for computing power has swelled, the energy data centers required to run have remained relatively stable, thanks to rapid gains in energy efficiency.

“We keep seeing studies that say, ‘Netflix is destroying the climate’ or your emails are, or zooming is bad,” Masanet said. “It’s kind of an alarming view of the internet’s footprint and that narrative is false. These systems are really complicated. The technology improves really rapidly. It gets more efficient not every year [but] every month when the technology upgrades.”

Mills founded Lunavi in 2007 as concern was growing about the environmental costs of technology. Lunavi focused on designing and building the most efficient data center possible.

“We generally have the philosophy that the greenest electron is the one that is never used,” he said.

Lunavi designed data centers to take advantage of natural cooling processes instead of power-hungry air conditioners. Mills said that since the company started, technological gains in electronics have allowed for more efficiency gains in cooling.

“Back in the day it used to be literally, ‘I need it to be 69.5 degrees in my data center plus or minus half a degree,’” Mills said. “Now data centers are able to handle a wider tolerance. It can be a 10- to 15-degree change in temperature and still keep the same performance.”

Efficiency gains are important because data centers have a high fixed energy cost. Masenet said that even in 2020, when individuals were spending more time online and demand was up, there was no obvious jump in energy use by data centers.

“One additional unit of data demand does not equal one additional unit of energy,” he said. “Think of it like a bus or a train. Most of the energy that goes into a bus is to move the bus around and with every additional passenger you add, sure, it takes a little bit more energy, but it’s not doubling with every new passenger.”

Going forward, demand requests from applications and new technologies provide the most cause for concern, not one person’s Netflix binge. The growth of new technologies requiring a lot of energy – like artificial intelligence, 5G, virtual reality and blockchain – could mean that in the future, efficiency improvements will not keep up and data center energy use will skyrocket.

Renewable Energy Could Offset Demand Growth

Ultimately, experts hope to power data centers using renewable energy.

“That’s one saving feature,” Masanet said. “There’s a lot of progress in shifting to renewables that will help keep emissions in check even if absolute energy use goes up.”

According to the International Energy Agency, information and communication technology companies accounted for about half of global corporate renewables procurement in the past five years.

Lunavi, for example, partnered with an electricity co-op in its headquarters state of Wyoming to ensure its energy use is covered by renewable energy credits. The company has been recognized by the EPA as one of the top 30 U.S. purchasers of renewable energy in technology and telecom. According to the EPA, 105% of Lunavi’s electricity use is powered by the wind.

“We’ve been very proud of leading that charge,” Mills said.

The Key Is Transparency

Ultimately, experts say, major technology companies will need to offer more transparency. New government regulations, programs, and incentives will likely be needed to ensure openness and to support a more sustainable industry.

“A lot of industries, particularly industries that we think of when we think of CO2 emissions, are regulated in the sense that they have to provide transparency in terms of their emissions,” Obringer, said. “So with the auto industry or other big emitters, we can find a lot of those values because they’re expected to produce annual reports.”

Some of that policy work is moving in the right direction, Masanet said.

An introduction to the state of wind power in the U.S.

For example, provisions for more energy efficient data centers were included in the December 2020 $900 billion stimulus package. Among those provisions are a requirement for a new national study on data center energy use, training for energy efficiency in data centers, more transparency from federal data centers, and establishing efficiency benchmarks.

While the future energy use of new technologies remains uncertain, many experts feel optimistic that sustainability is possible: “My gut feels like the industry is moving in the right direction,” Mills said.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

18 comments

  1. Petter

    Norway is on the front line here. According to a report by the national broadcaster NRK, eighty percent of new wind production is financed by foreign investors, including Blackrock. Blackrock’s plan is to provide power to Google’s server farms, one outside Stavanger and a newly acquired property of over 400 acres outside of Skien, southwest of Oslo (easy to Google).
    Not everyone is happy -this is a Google translate of a Green politician’s view on what is happening – from an NRK article titled International Research:Municipalities Get Little Back from Investing in Wind Power. https://www.nrk.no/tromsogfinnmark/internasjonal-forskning_-kommunene-far-lite-igjen-for-vindkraftsatsing-1.14285049
    ——
    In Flora municipality further north, in Sogn og Fjordane, local politician Stein Malkenes (MDG) is far less enthusiastic.

    – Norway is reducing itself to a resource colony where we give away our natural resources to foreign investors and are left with all the disadvantages and some buttons and glossy images, he says.

    He points out that the world’s largest investment fund, BlackRock, bought the Guleslettene wind farm four days after the wind farm was approved.

    According to Malkenes, BlackRock will after 15 years have earned one billion kroner just on the dividend of green certificates that all citizens and companies in Norway finance over the electricity bill.

    – What the local community gets back is a few million in property tax in the same period, a destroyed mountain and hiking area and 15 destroyed coastal watercourses.
    ———
    The research cited in the above link is from a study in Germany:
    https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/en/article/the-local-economic-impact-of-wind-power-deployment-101628fa-2018-0021

    Reply
  2. drumlin woodchuckles

    So . . . computering emits 4% of all the skyflooded carbon in the world.

    And air travel emits another 6% of all the skyflooded carbon in the world.

    That means we will get farther by focusing on the other 90% of all the skyflooded carbon in the world, because a lot of THAT could be reduced by less stupid uses of less stupid technology and less stupid design.

    Whereas you can’t fly without plane fuel, and you can’t compute without electricity.

    So if we strangle back the other 90 % of carbon skyflooding and it still isn’t enough, then we can strangle back air travel and air freight and computering.

    Reply
  3. Mikerw0

    I am sorry, this is misguided and wrong. I work in clean tech power. The issue is total carbon dioxide or methane release into the atmosphere. A company buying credit is just shuffling the chairs — it does not necessarily reduce total burning of hydrocarbons.

    I am not putting down wind or solar, but until large scale cost effective storage can be deployed to work with them and address their intermittency issues, they help but don’t address base load power requirements.

    The shifts away from hydrocarbon energy — such as EVs — mandates more electricity. The growth in data centers is more electricity. It has to come from somewhere.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Which is why using vastly less matter and energy in the OTHER 90% of the carbon skyflooding economy will buy time to solve these problems in the air travel and computering parts of the economy which are only 10 % of the problem.

      Vastly cutting the OTHER 90% of the economy MAY even SOLVE the problem ALL BY ITSELF.

      Reply
      1. Mikerw0

        Competely agree. Everyone ignores consuming less, or conservation, as a part of the solution. We waste massive amounts — is energy too cheap?

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Yes. Energy is far too cheap. Certainly “luxury consumption” of energy is far too cheap.

          For homedwellers, maybe the first few killowatt-hours of electric power per day should be priced like they are now. But any killowatt hours above that should be charged more for. And the price per unit-used should escalate by “excess-use” brackets just like income tax percentages used to go up by brackets.

          Same for every sort of energy bought and sold.

          James Hansen has suggested another method to deal with fossil carbon energy specifically.
          The carbon-fee, charged against the primary producer at the mine mouth or well head before they are permitted to sell it into the economy. And of course, after they have paid the fee, they are absoLUTEly allowed to turn around and pass the entire cost of the permission-to-sell-fee on to the “first buyer”. Who is then absolutely free to pass that cost on to the “second buyer”. And so on down the line.

          The point is to make fossil carbon energy burdensome to buy, then onerous, then torturous over time. The point is to slowly but surely exterminate the coal , gas, and oil energy industries by pricing them totally out of the market.

          Here is James Hansen explaining his own plan.
          http://redgreenandblue.org/2020/09/22/dr-james-hansen-carbon-fee-dividend-plan-crucial-part-social-environmental-justice/

          And who the phuc is James Hansen anyway?
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hansen

          Reply
          1. cnchal

            > And of course, after they have paid the fee, they are absoLUTEly allowed to turn around and pass the entire cost of the permission-to-sell-fee on to the “first buyer”. Who is then absolutely free to pass that cost on to the “second buyer”. And so on down the line.

            That never works out well for the end customer, you or me. What happens is that fee gets padded by a percentage everytime that unit of energy is sold to the next greedy middleman in the retail chain.

            You can also bet your last dollar that Googlag, scAmazon, Farcebook, crApple and Microgarbage buy power for the data canters at a steep discount to what someone living next door to the data center pays. I think they should pay a penalty or super high electricity rates to discourage their use. What is the point of digitally storing gazillions of images and vidoes of someone’s barf inducing breakfast?

            Tech is a wasteland.

            Reply
            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Hansen’s stated logic for this plan is that all the fossil carbon fees paid to the fee-collecting authority upon first sale of the fuel from the wellhead or minemouth will then all be divided up into exactly equal sized amounts and paid out to every legal resident of the US as a “dividend”. That’s why he calls it ” fee and dividend”.

              His theory is that the less coal, oil or gas is involved in the making of a product or performance of a service, the less of a passed-along fee-cost that business will have to charge. The price difference between fossil-heavy and fossil-free products and services should become high enough that more and more people will target their dividend money towards buying fossil-free. That will encourage more thingmakers and service doers to go fossil free as they see more buyers for what they make and do.

              Over time, the whole society should be tortured ( my word and concept, not his) away from fossil-involved fossil-fee-priced goods and services, and the fossil producers should be high-priced into extinction, whereupon they will cease from driving the carbon skyflooding process.

              Now . . . . if the No Fossil- No Fee thingmakers and thingdoers decide to raise their prices right up to where the Fossil and Fee thingmakers and thingdoers have been fee-forced to raise their prices up to, then the whole plan is defeated.
              I don’t know if Hansen thought about that or ways to prevent that.

              But if his plan is not used, straight-up punitive fossil carbon taxation can be used instead.

              Of course, in either event, America would have to protectionize itself against carbon dumping by its trading enemies and its traitor-within companies outsourcing goods and services to carbon dumping jurisdictions.

              Reply
    1. Synoia

      Getting to the point where there is nuclear fuel produced requires much energy and resources.

      The only good fusion reactor we currently have is the Sun. And its at a reasonably safe distance, which is a good place to keep it.

      If by nuclear you mean fusion, then I’m all for that. Fission? Not so much, and it has a few, unfortunately long lived, waste disposal issues.

      Or are you volunteering to help us by glowing in the dark?

      Reply
      1. Wombat

        Well we can keep burning trees for biomass, scraping the earth and mountaintopping for rare earths, digging holes all over Africa for Cobalt. No solution is “good”. At least Nuclear (yea Fission, that one, the one where nuclei split apart, the one that everyone means when they mention developed nuclear power) runs 24-7 and I hazard to guess (but willing to be proven wrong) damages less of the world’s surface than other green sources. I believe the EROI on Nuclear is better than fossils as well (although estimates vary greatly depending on where the science comes from).

        Your arguments (“glowing in the dark, waste disposal”) seem like they were generated by a 1970s era, Environmental Coopting, Astroturfing, Fossil fuel company advocate.

        Reply
        1. Rodeo Clownfish

          It takes way too long to build nuclear plants. And when the energy used in the mining and refinement to generate the fuel is accounted, the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) is not as good as wind and nowhere near as good as hydroelectric. And the waste is a legitimate complaint. It has to be stored for thousands of years. If that cost is accounted, even solar has a better EROEI than fission nuclear.

          Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      James Hansen agrees with you. He writes about this in the middle of his book Storms Of My Grandchildren.

      Reply
  4. c_heale

    I think this is the wrong way round to look at this issue. Climate change will just create a new earth. One with very few humans on it. Life isn’t gonna stop, but we might die out.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      From an Earth’s-eye-view, that is true.

      From a selfishly human-centric view, like mine, I would like to see us NOT die out and I would like to see all the other extant life-forms NOT die out as well. Maybe we can still arrange for that to happen. Maybe.

      Reply
  5. Jack

    I am surprised that the discussion does not mention the massive amount of power being used to mine for Bitcoins. One source estimates 121 Terawatt-hours annually. And, a lot of that power comes from coal-fired plants in China.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith

      I intend to get to that….late to clear my throat on that topic.

      I don’t consider Bitcoin to be “the internet” either. The banks’ interbank payment system and the airlines’ electronic payment system predated the Internet. Blockchain is a computationally very intensive solution to the problem of how two anonymous parties verify a transaction. That does not depend on the Internet. I assume you could verify a blockchain transaction with an exchange of disks or a USB stick.

      Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Part of down-fossiling the American economy might have to involve making the possession or use of bitcoin into a Life Without Parole in the Very Worst Federal Prisons type of crime.

      Reply

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