The Internet is the largest system of infrastructure ever created. Moving data across the Internet is a highly complex process, with a lot of hidden environmental costs.
Transferring data has many dependencies, according to Tom Greenwood from Wholegrain Digital. “Are you transferring it on a relatively small network from one node to another?” Tom asks. “Or are you transferring it across hundreds of thousands of miles, crossing oceans? That makes a difference in terms of the energy that’s used to get from the data center to the end user who’s looking at that.”
“And then you’ve got the end user devices,” Tom continues, “which are using energy themselves. And they use more energy to process certain things. You can tell when your device gets hot or the fan starts whirring on your computer looking at a webpage because it’s really making it work hard. And then you’ve got local networks. Once it reaches your home or your office, you’ve got those local Wi-Fi hubs and routers whirring away twenty hours a day using energy.”
In many situations, 80% of the pollution associated with the Internet occurs during the manufacture of the infrastructure and devices. The manufacture of a server, for example, can easily cause one ton of CO2 to be emitted. “How much energy does it take to build this infrastructure and build the hardware that’s actually running the Internet?” Tom asks. “That really is something that isn’t talked about enough. The carbon footprint of a server is pretty huge and data centers are replacing their servers every three to four years, in a lot of cases. And at the end of life they’re getting binned and, in many cases, shredded. Even if they still work. Which is even more painful.”
The vicious circle of digital technology involves devices that cause huge pollution during manufacture, that are only then kept for a couple of years when they should be kept for twenty years. And to close the vicious circle, most electronics are not properly recycled.
“One large organization is shredding thousands of hard drives every week,” Tom explains. “The reasons are security but also performance and reliability. If new servers have a performance gain then the old servers will often be replaced, even if there’s nothing wrong with them. Uptime is the name of the game in the hosting industry.”
Rich humans have chosen speed and convenience over sustainability. “Nearly everything that is coming out of these data centers, most of it is perfectly usable and the stuff that’s not is pretty easy to repair,” Tom explains. “And the failure rate on the refurbished machines is actually lower than on the new machines. The reason the failure rate is so low is because when they refurbish them they test every single key component of every single machine. Whereas when they are manufactured for a brand, they are batch tested, so they’re only testing every 10th or 20th machine.”
The digital economy is built on waste. We destroy perfectly good working machines after three years of use. Machines that created more than a ton of CO2 during manufacture. If we’re going to properly address the climate crisis we must address the key underlying drivers. The digital economy is a key accelerant of the climate crisis.