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Is the Internet bad for the environment?

By / May 8, 2009



We know that our computers use energy, and if we think about it, we recognize that all those servers that enable our e-mails to reach South America or Japan require plenty of power, too. But what we probably haven't envisioned is how much energy it takes to power the data centers that keep the Internet running. It's an estimated 152 billion kilowatt hours yearly, says an article in New Scientist magazine by Duncan Graham-Rowe.

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That translates into approximately 2 percent of human-caused C02 emissions, or about the same as produced by the aviation industry. And the amount is likely to escalate in coming years as Internet traffic grows – one estimate is an increase of emissions by 280 percent by 2020.

According to a study conducted by Rich Brown, an energy analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, and commissioned by the US environmental protection agency, "US data centers used 61 billion kilowatt hours in 2006, which is 1.5% of the entire electricity usage in the US," reports redOrbit.

This has led to calls such as: Web providers must limit Internet's carbon footprint, say experts. "In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the internet … we need to rein in the energy consumption," said Subodh Bapat, vice-president at Sun Microsystems."

But the news isn't all bad. Computers are getting more energy-efficient and data centers are greening up.

And we assume that such Net staples as video conferencing help the environment by keeping people off planes and out of cars and in their offices instead. Whether that's true or not isn't known, though, says Jonathan Koomey, an energy expert at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Oakland, Calif. Maybe video conferencing could actually increase C02 emissions?

Does this remind you of the recent spate of stories about the carbon footprint of spam?

Just as not everyone agreed with the conclusions of that report, this one has its naysayers, too. A commenter on the New Scientist site points out that the Net enables greater efficiencies in carbon use – not using cars to drive several different places to find what you want, more information available digitally rather than in print form, etc.

And generally, equipment can be made more energy-efficient.

But Leo Hickman, writing on the Guardian's site, decides that he isn't willing to sacrifice his posts for the planet. Don't take my Internet away, he pleads.

Hmmm, that could be sung to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine":
You are my Internet,
My only Internet.
You make me happy
E'en when carbon soars.
You'll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don't take my Internet away.

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