Is the Internet Sustainable?

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These days, more and more of our business is being done over the internet. Cloud computing and zoom meetings are taking over from on-site servers and face-to-face meetings. The same is true about our leisure time, with sites such as Amazon replacing high street shopping, streaming services like Netflix taking on cinemas and even online betting sites challenging traditional bookmakers.

With lower office power consumption and less business travel, combined with less waste from physical entertainment venues and products, it would appear, on the surface, that the internet is good for the planet. But is this, in fact, the case, or is the energy consumed by the vast array of internet data centres around the world causing more harm than good?

Just how big is the internet?

When it comes to the size of the internet, the numbers are mind boggling, and they’re growing rapidly. In just 25 years, the internet has grown from 16m users in 1995, to 2bn in 2011, to 5bn in December 2020. There are an estimated 1.8bn websites online, with ecommerce estimated to be worth an incredible $4.2trillion in 2020, equivalent to the entire GDP of Germany or Russia. The average user spends no less than 6½ hrs online every day at work and at home.

How much power does the internet use?

The actual power consumption of the internet is a fiercely debated issue, producing a wide disparity of estimates. One review of academic papers found a range from as low as 0.004kWh/GB to as high as 136kWh/GB, with a different paper in 2017 averaging out the findings of 14 studies to 0.06kWh/GB.

Similar studies report that the data centres in the United States alone consume between 70bn and 140bn kWh of electricity every year, which equates to 1.8-3.6% of total US consumption. Globally, it is estimated that ICT has the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry, at around 2% of the total emissions. Data centres consume half of this and transmission networks, including mobile, account for the rest.

Is the problem getting worse?

Fortunately, advances in technology mean that although internet use is rising rapidly, power consumption is falling just as fast. Larger data centres, known as ‘hyperscale’, have brought impressive efficiencies. Prof. Jonathan Koomey, of Stanford University, estimates that power consumption by data centres is dropping at a logarithmic rate. This means that even though there are now estimated to be over 100million drives in US data centres, holding a staggering 350terabytes of data, their relative power consumption is no more than it has been in the past.

What is the future?

Given the significant cost of energy, we can be sure that data centre operators will continue to pump money into researching new ways to make them ever more efficient. However, the rapid growth of cloud computing and other internet use means that these data centres will inevitably continue to grow. In recent years the industry has managed to find a balance that has kept total energy consumption flat, but the question remains as to whether this delicate balance can be sustained.

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