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Zero impact Internet? As yet still a dream

The bigger the digitalized world grows, the more energy it uses, and the bigger its share of the planet's polluting factors becomes.

by Evita Comes
10 September 2019
5 min read
by Evita Comes
10 September 2019
5 min read

How many photos have you taken with your cell phone to date? Personally, I have had to change not one but two smartphones not so long ago because they had run out of storage space and I was unwilling to store my data on cloud, in the illusion that this precaution would safeguard my privacy. But how much has this choice cost me? I have lost countless photos that were important to me and my house is filling up with hard disks.

So what’s my point? We are producing too much data. All the photos, files and various types of documents that we decide to file, occupy material space in this world: a space made of computers and interconnected cables that are powered by electricity. So we are consuming energy, quite a substantial amount. Clouds and the Internet in general are not imaginary concepts floating around in the air, as we may tend to believe; they actually exist in our reality, as physical objects. The Internet consumes energy, just like our domestic appliances, car or anything else that might spring to mind. According to Greenpeace, the Internet uses 7% of the world’s energy, and a good part of the energy consumed by repeaters, data centers and other structures that support the Internet, derive from fossil fuels. According to these studies the heftiest consumption of energy on the Internet is due, first and foremost, to streaming videos, an activity that currently accounts for approx. 60% of the electrical energy consumed. This percentage is expected to rise to 80% by 2020.

A fact that provides even more food for thought after the publication of a report by the no profit organization Shift Project, according to which digital technologies are responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the Internet in general accounts for 7% of total energy consumption, while its use of electrical energy is increasing at a rate of 8% per year. Perhaps the last figure is the most worrying.

The Internet, therefore, contributes actively to the production of Co2 and in the course of the years to come, with the increase of videos, films and all the various contents produced online, there will be higher data-traffic, requiring higher energy expenditure, with all the consequences that this cause-and-effect mechanism generates on the climate and the environment.


Solutions but first and foremost awareness

The pace can be slowed down. One step, which has already been taken by many technological giants, is the use of renewable sources of energy, particularly to power data centers and entire structures that support the Internet. Efforts are being made. Google and Microsoft, for example, have been focusing for some time now on total carbon neutrality, while Apple never tires of reminding us that it is completely eco-sustainable.

In addition to renewables, other solutions are also being researched, all of which are mentioned in the Shift Project report. They consist of a few small but effective strategies that digital companies can put into operation in order to make their products more efficient. Let’s look at a few examples, starting with Netflix. If the most clicked platform in the world for viewing films and TV series were to encourage its users not to view its contents in high definition, this would generate considerable energy savings due to the drop in data traffic. If Facebook did not allow promotional videos to play automatically, there would be a drop in energy consumption, and if YouTube were to deactivate the viewing of its videos for those who are only listening to music, this could produce a reduction in the emissions caused by streaming of 5%, the equivalent of 11 million tonnes per year.

The entire digital sector is duty-bound to make efforts towards reaching zero environmental impact but, at the end of the day, as with the climate change issue as a whole, the greatest burden is on the individual. “Internet is an invisible machine. We don’t see the massive infrastructure that powers our online activity, and most of the time, we are far removed from these processes. That means we don’t mentally connect their use with the environmental impacts. Just being aware that what we do online has an impact in the real world is a good start”. These are the words of Mark Radka, head of UN Environment's energy and climate branch.

The underwater Internet. Whose domain?

As much as 97% of the communications are conveyed through cables, most of which are part of the underwater network, approx. 900,000 km long. Cable laying entails an extremely detailed study of the territory because particularly rich fishing grounds must be avoided and the installation of a repeater every 65 km must be taken into account. This infrastructure is an important asset for the countries that manage it and up until very recently the United States had almost total control, but since 2017 China has become America’s most tenacious competitor. The reality is that, yesterday as today, telecommunications infrastructure is an extremely effective tool for multiplying a country’s economic and military power. So the importance of the role played by the underwater cables in the context of the current economic war between China and the USA is patently clear. Up until now the latter has played a fundamental role in the digital infrastructure domain and it does not want China - and in particular Huawei - to undermine its leadership. On the one hand Washington does not look favorably on the development of the Chinese Internet, while on the other China has no intention of slowing down its development in this field, aiming to become the world’s greatest technological power by 2025.