There is a real footprint to all those baby pictures and Netflix binges.
If we TreeHuggers really practice what we preach, we may have to return our site to how it looked in 2004, when the stories were short and the pictures were small. That's because, according to Emily Chasan at Bloomberg, it takes a huge amount of energy to store it all. Her headline Cut Back on Email If You Want to Fight Global Warming is a bit silly, but it makes the point.
Analyst Andrew Choi raises a point we have before on TreeHugger, that every connected device is drawing energy to run and every baby picture takes juice to preserve.
Right now, data centers consume about 2% of the world’s electricity, but that’s expected to reach 8% by 2030. Moreover, only about 6% of all data ever created is in use today, according to research from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. That means that 94% is sitting in a vast “cyber landfill,” albeit one with a massive carbon footprint.
Choi says the problem is getting too big too fast: How many photos are sitting untouched in the cloud? Is there a net benefit from an internet-connected toothbrush?
Even as more data centers get powered by renewables or servers get more efficient or even placed in really cold places, the data storage requirements keep going up. And they don't even mention bitcoin mining.
BloombergNEF warns that energy efficiency upgrades or other technological improvements are unlikely to offset data’s greenhouse gas emissions, even if they are deployed quickly. Energy computing workloads are likely to more than double as more AI comes online, more devices are connected, and people do more work in the cloud.
This is all of interest to those of us trying to lower are carbon footprints or live a 1.5 degree lifestyle. Take movies; Rosalind Readhead (who is trying to live a one tonne lifestyle) has researched the carbon footprint of this for her low carbon diet and found that 90 minutes of streaming video has a footprint of up to 750 grams. Even watching on a smartphone is up to 380 grams. Mike Berners-Lee calculated that the footprint of a tweet is .02 grams. Pretty small, but they add up.
And it is just going to get worse, with the proliferation of smart devices that are all tiny vampires. I calculated that my Hue lightbulbs over my dining room table are so efficient that they actually consume more electricity while they are off as when they are on one hour out of 23 in a day. I noted that "it also means that if you have a pile of smart bulbs and gadgets, you are consuming a fair bit of electricity. You would need 150 of them to be equivalent to a 60 watt bulb burning, but in this era of Alexa and Internet-connected electric toothbrushes, that's not a stretch."
If you don't like the teeny pictures and short punchy stories from TreeHugger 2004, you could always try Kris de Decker's solar powered website, which he developed to fight bloat and save energy. He writes:
The growth in data traffic surpasses the advances in energy efficiency (the energy required to transfer 1 megabyte of data over the Internet), resulting in more and more energy use. “Heavier” or “larger” websites not only increase energy use in the network infrastructure, but they also shorten the lifetime of computers — larger websites require more powerful computers to access them. This means that more computers need to be manufactured, which is a very energy-intensive process.
So he has designed a site that is a fraction of the normal size, with static pages, dithered images, default typefaces and no third party tracking, advertising services or cookies.
He also makes a good point that I have not thought about, as I write this in my browser and store everything I have in the iCloud:
“Always-on” Internet access is accompanied by a cloud computing model – allowing more energy efficient user devices at the expense of increased energy use in data centers. Increasingly, activities that could perfectly happen off-line – such as writing a document, filling in a spreadsheet, or storing data – are now requiring continuous network access. This does not combine well with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, which are not always available.
I could switch back to doing all this stuff offline and storing it in my computer, but then I will blow my whole data budget just watching Data and Picard on my 4K TV on Thursday night. So many hard choices.