From coffee machines to CAT scanners, elevators to ATMs, our workplaces too are now packed with digital devices that use a constant stream of power.
Energy efficiency is a particular concern, however, when we look at the tens of thousands of data centers that have sprung up around the world.
Data centers are the factories of the 21st century, sometimes gargantuan facilities which house computer systems and support what we know as “the cloud”.
They require huge amounts of power, both to run the equipment they use and to cool it. And all too often those massive energy demands have been met by fossil fuels.
The Guardian’s digital emissions in 2013-14 were up 25 percent on the year before and accounted for more than 21 percent of its total carbon footprint, compared to 61 percent accounted for by its newspaper printing operations. Its carbon efficiency fell as it expanded digital operations to the US and Australia, where electricity companies use more coal than in the UK.
Greenpeace’s report offers hope by highlighting the “growing number of companies [which] have begun to create a corner of the internet that is renewably powered and coal free.”
Those major companies include Google, Apple and Facebook. And they have been driving renewable power by:
- Increasing transparency through publishing their energy and carbon footprint data
- Committing to being 100 percent renewably powered
- Using their influence to push utilities and policymakers to invest in renewable energy
Other technical fixes include bundling servers together, locating them in cooler climes and introducing power management features.
Things will not change overnight. According to Greenpeace, there is continued resistance to renewable investments from stubborn, coal-dependent power companies. But if companies around the world follow Apple and Google’s example, Greenpeace says the internet “has the potential to serve as a critical foundation for sustainable economic growth.”
Meanwhile, perhaps now is a good time for the rest of us to try the WWF environmental footprint calculator or one like it and remind ourselves of the impact our personal choices.
But remember: most online calculators do not cover our digital lives. There is far more to your carbon footprint than planes, trains and automobiles.