I’ve written a few times now about the looming implications of the internet being so heavily tied to our infrastructure. There’s a lot of costs that come with this, from the hackers hitting the Colonial Pipeline to software problems associated with concentrated ownership of the infrastructure. With our growing and seemingly insatiable dependence on the internet, it could be a disaster if we lose connection for any extended period. However, there is another less obvious cost of our widespread internet usage – the environmental cost.
It’s easy to forget that the internet does, in fact, exist in a concrete form. When we see it simply as a ‘cloud’, we lose track of all the physical space and energy required to keep connected. There are some obvious physical things like our phones and laptops that we interact with daily. But if you extend beyond that you will inevitably trace the internet back to the cables that run through your home and streets and, eventually, back to the servers that store data and connect you to the internet. Places that host multiple servers are called data centers. Data centers exist in a range of sizes. The largest data center in the US is The Citadel (owned by Switch), located in Nevada. It has 7.2 million square feet total in space, with their largest data center building taking up 1.3 million square feet. There are data centers like this all over the world, all working hard to keep the internet online.
In 2016, studies were reported to show that across the globe, data centers alone accounted for the usage of 3% of the world’s electric and 2% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions – and those numbers are predicted to rise over time. The energy use of these data centers is equivalent to that of the aviation industry.
There are other costs beyond emissions to consider, as well. Data centers generate a lot of heat. This means that some data centers have to use chemical coolants known to impact the ozone layer, such as freon. Data centers also use limited and rare resources in their building components. This includes things like batteries, microchips, and other electronics that are known to be harmful to the environment if not recycled. Even the mining for raw materials that electronics require can cause harmful effects to the humans who work and live around the mines.
But it’s not all bad news. The environmental cost of relying on the internet does come with some manageable and realistic solutions. For instance, to cut back on mining new raw materials, companies can implement proper recycling programs for their electronic waste. If data centers are built correctly, they can use free cooling or other cooling alternatives that don’t rely on toxic chemicals. And, perhaps most importantly, there are plenty of green options that can reduce emissions such as solar or wind. However, these changes can only happen if we pay attention to the consequences – so stay alert and stay informed.