Introduction

Technology has become a central part of our lives, as more and more aspects of our daily routines rely on digital technologies. While our lives have become “smart”, little thought has been given to the environmental consequences. Since technology is often viewed as purely beneficial, it does not typically raise environmental concerns.

This article looks at three ways digitalisation impacts the environment: by performing any action on the Internet, by disposing of devices improperly, and through the existence of data centres themselves.

 

Google searches

On the Internet, every click implies energy consumption. The impact generally depends on the size of the websites and the elements (such as images, videos and graphical elements) featured on pages, but even a simple Google search can pollute. It is difficult to accurately calculate the impact of Google searches on the environment: the company itself does not publish its data and there is no standardised independent source on Google’s volume data.

However, estimates can be made. In 2014, researcher Joanna Moll calculated that “on average, the production of 1 kWh emits 544 gr. of CO2. It takes 13 kWh to transmit 1GB of information, the equivalent of 7,07 kg. of CO2.”[1] The google.com homepage weighs about 2MB, so its current (estimated) 105,000 searches per second[2] would generate 1,485kg of CO2 emissions per second. This is an imperfect calculation since it uses data from 2014 and since energy may be produced through renewable sources, but still validly demonstrates the impact of digital interactions.

 

Tackling e-waste

E-waste refers to electronic products which are no longer functioning or used, and includes household appliances, office equipment and personal devices. Only 20% of e-waste is collected for recycling; owners often keep their previous phones and old devices rather than disposing of them. Of the remaining 80%, 76% has unknown fate and 4% is thrown into household waste. When e-waste ends up in landfills, metals contained in electronic devices, such as mercury and lead, may seep into the ground and contaminate groundwater. The Global North does not suffer the consequences of this mismanaged disposal, as disused and unwanted products are mostly sent to countries in the Global South. It is places like Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra in Ghana, that suffer the drastic consequences of the 215,000 tonnes of electronic goods dumped here. “Out of 100 soil samples collected in Agbogbloshie, more than half have shown an amount of lead which is over twice as much as the standards allowed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).”[3]

 

Data centres

Data centres are the backbone of the Internet and, as such, they require high amounts of electricity to run. In addition to the electricity required to run the computers where data is stored, vast amounts of energy are also needed to cool the computers. This is typically done through mechanical cooling (e.g. fans) and amounts to roughly 25% of a data centre’s total power consumption.

Researchers reported that data centres accounted for 1%[1] of world energy use in 2005, when there were roughly one billion people on the Internet.[2] With users have grown to over five billion, one might expect their energy consumption to have sharply increased over time, but this is not the case. However, this has not been the case: data centre energy consumption has only slightly increased (it is now roughly 1.4-1.7%[3]) thanks to widespread and sustained efforts in improving efficiency.

 

Conclusion

Our future is digital, and digitalisation is not a process that can be reversed. Our reliance on this infrastructure highlights the importance of ensuring that future generations can enjoy both the convenience of such technologies and a healthy planet. Technology clearly has very concrete effects on our environment we cannot ignore only because of the convenience of digital tools.

Acknowledging that the exponential growth of the digital world is currently unsustainable – and will only worsen in the future – is important because it allows us to focus on finding solutions to the above problems. Data centres show that pollution is not the sole option, and that sustainability and innovation can go hand in hand. However, quick and decisive action must be taken to limit the impact of our digital lives on the environment.

 

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References

[1] Moll, Joana. ‘CO2GLE’. Jana Virgin. Accessed 6 June 2024. https://www.janavirgin.com/CO2/CO2GLE_about.html.

[2] Domo. (2023). Data Never Sleeps 11.0. https://www.domo.com/learn/infographic/data-never-sleeps-11

[3] J. Ottaviani, ‘E-Waste Republic’, accessed 6 June 2024, https://web.archive.org/web/20180628102332/https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2015/ewaste/index.html.

[4]  Jonathan G Koomey, ‘Worldwide Electricity Used in Data Centers’, Environmental Research Letters 3, no. 3 (2008), https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/3/3/034008.

[5] ITU. ‘Number of internet users worldwide from 2005 to 2023 (in millions).’ Chart. November 27, 2023. Statista. Accessed June 10, 2024. https://www.statista.com/statistics/273018/number-of-internet-users-worldwide/

[6] IEA. “Data Centres & Networks.” Accessed June 10, 2024. https://www.iea.org/energy-system/buildings/data-centres-and-data-transmission-networks.