Scitech  The costs behind the clicks

The environmental impact of internet use

Google searches are free, easy, and probably one of the best things to happen to library-shy students. Although there’s no monetary cost for hitting search, every time you query Google for an answer – or, actually, visit a web page, send an email, or check the weather – electricity is used. Add all those little actions together, and suddenly it’s clear that the internet isn’t quite as green as Silicon Valley would have us believe.

Data centres worldwide – the backbone of every internet site, from Google to Netflix, or even McGill’s own websites – consume around 1.9 per cent of the world’s electricity. At their most basic, data centres are nothing more than vast collections of servers, doing everything from hosting websites to fulfilling web searches and re-encoding YouTube videos.

As a result of all the computing power they need to function, data centres struggle with cooling. As anyone who’s ever had an overheating computer on their lap will know, computers run hot – a computer’s central processing unit routinely runs at around 85 degrees Celsius. Take into account the hundreds of thousands of individual servers in any given data centre, and cooling becomes a serious – and energy-intensive – problem.

To combat the problem, data centres rely on industrial-level air conditioning, using thousands of fans to pump cool air into the server rooms, and then even more computer fans to stop the individual components from melting. All that takes a lot of juice. Add that to the electricity that powers servers in the first place, and you have the bulk of the internet’s electricity usage.

Of course, there are ways to try and offset the environmental impact of using so much power. Google has proudly maintained a ‘carbon-neutral’ footprint since 2007 both by using 34 per cent renewable energy and developing a series of carbon-offset programmes.

Other companies are far worse custodians of the environment, though; Salesforce, one of the world’s largest providers of cloud computing services, gets just 4 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, according to an energy report by Greenpeace in April 2012.

The same report identifies Apple as one of the worst offenders in terms of carbon emissions, which gets over 55 per cent of its electricity from coal, arguably the dirtiest way of producing electricity. That said, an industry trend toward renewable energy is evident – the same Apple that relies so heavily on fossil fuels has more than doubled its use of renewable energy in the space of a single year.

Despite the fact that the bulk of the internet’s environmental impact is the result of a handful of gargantuan companies, consumers have an impact as well. Individual actions on the internet have an effect; according to Google’s own estimates, a single search uses 0.3 watt-hours of electricity – equivalent to turning on a 60W lightbulb for 17 seconds – a fact that the vast majority of people don’t consider before hitting search.

Google searches are just the tip of the iceberg. More data-heavy applications, like streaming a movie off of Netflix, consume more energy than you’d expect. A study by researchers from the University of Massachusetts found that streaming a movie over the internet is twice as bad for the environment as just shipping a DVD in the mail or, even better, walking around the corner to your local Blockbuster (R.I.P.).

That somewhat surprising fact is mostly due to the aforementioned costs of running a data centre. Storing just one movie takes hundreds of gigabytes of storage space, since one film has to be kept in dozens of different file formats, and each format in several different resolutions.

Then, once you’ve decided to stream a movie, the data has to travel from a Netflix server in, say, California, through dozens of switches, possibly an underseas pipe or two, pass by your very own internet router, and then be processed by whatever computer you’re watching your flick on. Although it’s a process that’s completed in milliseconds, it requires dozens of machines to be switched on, talk to each other, and crucially, use power.

Yet electricity’s just one of the environmental costs of the internet. Nearly 40 per cent of internet browsing is now done using mobile devices – devices which have batteries, almost always lithium-ion batteries. Lithium mining is a extremely damaging activity for the environment, generally using open-pit mines that leave permanent scars in the landscape and take decades to clean up.

That’s a particularly pressing problem for Canadians and Quebec residents: the Canada Lithium Corporation recently reopened an open-pit mine in Northern Quebec, producing 20,000 tonnes of battery-grade lithium per year. With lithium prices steadily rising, and the smartphone craze showing no sign of slowing down, lithium mining is a problem that’ll only get worse.

By this point, you’re probably wondering just how the internet gets away with being such a dirty industry. The fact is, though, that the internet’s environmental impact, one way or another, is paltry compared to the negative side-effects of manufacturing industries or the greenhouse gases produced by farming. The online industry only contributed around 2 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions last year – the same as the aviation industry, but still just a proverbial drop in the bucket.

The benefits of the internet to the environment, though, are almost limitless. Although streaming movies over Netflix might not be quite as eco-friendly as you may think, the internet has drastically reduced the need for far more polluting activities. As Google likes to point out, one web search can take the place of driving to the library to research a fact, an act that’s orders of magnitude more polluting than the couple of watts it takes to power a Google search.

So, although the internet as a whole might be beneficial for the environment, the manner in which it’s executed could still be better. Yes, the internet is only a minor player on the world’s environmental footprint, but when the stakes are so high and the numbers so huge, every little bit helps.