How many lightbulbs?

Is the internet sustainable? Guess what? No it isn’t.

We often think of “the internet” as a “virtual world”, somewhere in “the cloud”. Want to know something? Quickly use your search engine of choice to find out. Or browse Wikipedia. Need something? Just shop online, and it will be delivered to your doorstep (it should be obvious that this last step – delivering an item – clearly has environmental implications, and many cities are now struggling with the number of delivery vans). Video streaming, computer gaming, and everything else – all massive money making uses of “the internet” and all supposedly making our lives easier and more fun.

In addition to influencing and changing consumer behaviour, “big data” is the buzz phrase for all kinds of enterprises. Big data in the cloud, conveniently processed and delivered in consumable chunks for all sorts of purposes. All happening in a “virtual reality” and sold, conceptually, as a benefit of the real world we live in.

What gets lost in this rosy image is that “the internet” depends on a very material infrastructure, which is not without energetic and environmental impact.

According to Google’s own figures, the average Google search uses about 0.0003 kWh of energy, equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. That does not sound much. It is the equivalent of turning on a 60W lightbulb for 18 seconds. But then – according to Google more than 2 trillion searches (1,000,000,000,000) are performed every year. So your lightbulb could be on for more than a million years! What sounds incredibly small initially turns into something of considerable impact given the trillions of times it is being performed.

Climate Change News reported in December 2017: “Global computing power demand from internet-connected devices, high resolution video streaming, emails, surveillance cameras and a new generation of smart TVs is increasing 20% a year, consuming roughly 3-5% of the world’s electricity in 2015, says Swedish researcher Anders Andrae.

In an update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study, Andrae found that without dramatic increases in efficiency, the ICT industry could use 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. This would be more than any country except the US, China and India.

Others estimated at even higher energy consumption. According to a report by Greenpeace, “The energy footprint of the IT sector is already estimated to consume approximately 7% of global electricity. With an anticipated threefold increase in global internet traffic by 2020, the internet’s energy footprint is expected to rise further, fuelled both by our individual consumption of data and by the spread of the digital age to more of the world’s population, from 3 billion to over 4 billion globally.

The internet boom and “big data” is not just something happening “in the cloud”. It is having a real impact on our real environment. A good example is Ireland, a country popular with multinational companies looking for a place to build new data centres. Plans by Amazon, which already has several data centres in and around Dublin, to build a new 20,739 sq m (223,000 sq ft) data centre near Dublin raised concerns about its potential energy use: if fully realised to potential this one data centre alone would use 4.4% of Irelands projected electricity consumption by 2026. And Amazon is not alone. Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft have all announced significant data centre investments for Ireland. According to projections by EirGrid, Ireland’s grid operator, 15% of all electricity demand in Ireland will come from data centres by 2026.

Even though new energy production capacity in Ireland is 100% renewable, the increase in energy demand will mean that Ireland misses it’s EU renewable target of 16% of total energy needs from renewable sources by 2020, leading to an annual fine of 75 million €.

Crypto currencies and blockchain – energy consumption going through the roof

If all this was not bad enough, the present craze for crypto currencies – and more importantly, the future promotion of the underlying blockchain technology – will increase energy consumption even more. According to Digicomonist, one single Bitcoin transaction requires 427kWh of electricity and produces 209.28 kg of CO2. A typical European home uses about 3600kWh of electricity annually. This means your one Bitcoin transaction (to buy what and of what value?) uses as much electricity as the average European household in 43 days! A Nepalese household could be powered for more than 1 year (487 days) by the energy used in a single Bitcoin transaction.

The problem is not Bitcoin specifically (Ethereum, another popular crypto currency, also has a high energy use for each transaction, though considerably lower than Bitcoin), but the way Blockchain, the underlying technology, works. Mike Orcutt explains this in a recent piece in MIT Technology Review: "What brings cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum to life is the way all the computers in their networks agree, over and over, that what a blockchain says is true. To do this, they use an algorithm called a consensus mechanism. You’ve probably heard it called “mining.” And that’s the process guzzling energy, and huge amounts of it. Even though there are efforts under way to develop other, less energy guzzling, “consensus mechanisms” for blockchain, this is by design a tricky issue, leading Orcutt to conclude, a bit cynically: “The reality is that we are probably stuck with energy-guzzling cryptocurrencies, at least for a while. In the meantime, maybe true believers would be wise to invest their digital coins in renewable electricity sources.

However, the problem is not just that we are stuck with energy-guzzling cryptocurrencies, but that we are stuck with energy-guzzling blockchains, the new kid on the block for “big data”, evident at this years World Economic Forum in Davos, where several large shops have been converted into blockchain "spaces", offering back-to-back sessions with utopian titles such as "Blockchain beyond Earth" and "Redefining human value", according to a BBC news report

According to a White Paper published by the World Economic Forum in June last year, “Blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, could soon give rise to a new era of the Internet even more disruptive and transformative than the current one. Blockchain's ability to generate unprecedented opportunities to create and trade value in society will lead to a generational shift in the Internet's evolution, from an Internet of Information to a new generation Internet of Value.” This should get us worried – also for many other reasons, as I pointed out in an article I co-wrote in my “activist” capacity.

While it might sound less of a problem, given that many of the main IT companies are aiming for 100% renewable energy, this is not really the solution. As the example of Ireland shows, you can only build so much renewable generating capacity. And while the sun and wind might be almost unlimited resources, the minerals and materials used to construct renewable energy infrastructure are not. There comes a point – if we are not already past it – where we simply need to make a choice between building renewable to satisfy basic human needs, or building renewable to satisfy the energy demand of Blockchains or Google searches.

José Halloy wrote recently in Ecopolitica: All this allows to conclude that, in terms of energy and materials, the present information technologies are not sustainable in the long term. The tensions over the consumption of energy and materials will manifest during this century. (…)

The scientific literature recognises that the important limits will be reached during the XXI century and this question is closely related to climate change and energy transition. Taking into account the time needed for scientific and technological development, this means that the necessary research to develop alternative solutions have to be carried out at the earliest possible time, and intensively.”

Next time you think about quickly searching the web for something during a conversation, think twice.