Technology

Powering the Cloud: What Is the Carbon Footprint of the Internet?

The internet is a giant web of interconnected servers and data centres, each consuming substantial amounts of power. Every action on a website, therefore, requires energy to complete, creating a somewhat invisible, but significant carbon footprint.

Have you ever wondered what the carbon footprint of internet is? Just how much electricity is needed to power your eCommerce operation?

It’s not something most of us think about, but every time we scroll through Facebook, send an email, watch YouTube, shop on Amazon, or start another Netflix binge-session, we’re adding to the global energy demand and releasing additional Co2 into the atmosphere.

The internet, as we’ve come to know it, is a giant web of interconnected servers and data centres spread all over the globe – each of which consumes substantial amounts of energy. And with billions of websites, apps, and emails connecting the world, the internet has become somewhat of an invisible monster when it comes to our greenhouse gas emissions.

Exactly how much electricity is required, and therefore the carbon footprint of the internet, is the subject of debate, but studies indicate that our online activity consumes somewhere between 1-2% of the global energy supply. But with the explosion of on-demand cloud services – this figure could be as high as 13% by 2030.

“The internet consumes a lot of electricity. 416.2TWh per year to be precise. To give you some perspective, that’s more than the entire United Kingdom.”

websitecarbon.org

With the figures in perspective, it begs an important question: how green are the data centres that power all of our favourite websites, apps, and streaming services?

‘Hyper-Scale’ Data Centres Are the New Normal

Whereas companies of yesteryear had in-house networks – often in the form of cramped server rooms cooled by 24-hour air conditioning – the growing demand for ‘big data’, streaming services, and on-demand cloud storage has led to the creation of decentralised ‘hyper-scale’ data centres.

Each gigantic building – typically 1,000 square meters or more – contains tens of thousands of high-powered computers and generates so much heat that it requires an industrial cooling system to keep everything running. There are now more than 500 hyper-scale data centres around the world – almost half of which are in the US – and it’s estimated that their cooling systems use 40% of the energy needed to power the internet.

In the same way that large power stations replaced the need for private generators, cloud storage enables businesses to swap physical servers for an internet-based system. According to Gartner research, 80% of all companies are expected to eliminate their in-house data centres and move to cloud-based operations by 2025. 

Amazon AWS Hyperscale Data Centre
Amazon AWS Data Centre. Source: aws.amazon.com

Are Data Centres Better Reducing the Carbon Footprint of the Internet?

For a company, replacing physical servers with the cloud has an immediate environmental benefit – but the overall effect is a little more complicated.

Many on-site servers are notoriously inefficient, due to poor locations, lack of ongoing maintenance, and undersized air conditioning systems used to maintain temperature. By comparison, large-scale data centres are meticulously designed, managed, and operated, making their power-to-data ratio much more economical.

In simple terms, data centres get more efficient as they increase in size. And according to Google, its data centres are 700% more efficient now than they were just five years ago.

“The amount of computing done in data centres more than quintupled between 2010 and 2018. However, the amount of energy consumed by the world’s data centres grew only six percent during that period, thanks to improvements in energy efficiency.”

datacenterknowledge.com

The problem, however, is that although the efficiency of each location is improving, we’re building around 50 new hyper-scale data centres every year – and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

Google Data Centre Belgium Onsite Solar
Google Data Centre Belgium Onsite Solar. Source: https://sustainability.google/

How ‘Green’ Are the Big Data Companies?

Around 60% of all data and cloud services are provided by just three companies – Amazon, Microsoft, and Google – and all three have made a substantial commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of the internet.

You may be surprised to see Amazon’s name on the list, considering it’s best known as the global eCommerce giant that has redefined online retail. But Amazon’s subsidiary, Amazon Web Services (AWS), now generates around 50% of the company’s total profit – and is the largest cloud provider in the world.

With Amazon’s ‘climate pledge’ goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2040 – AWS currently sources more than 50% of its total energy from renewables and has made significant investments into large-scale solar and wind farms.

Google has also put some big money into clean electricity, and claims to be ‘the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world.’ In 2019 alone, the company increased its renewable energy capacity by 40% via purchase agreements with retailers around the world.

Here’s a snapshot of the three major cloud providers, detailing some of their biggest customers and their environmental roadmaps.

Amazon Web Services (AWS)

  • Global market share: 33%
  • Major customers: Netflix, Twitch, Airbnb, Adobe, Slack
  • Climate milestones: 50% renewables in 2018
  • Future goals: 80% renewables by 2024, 100% renewables by 2030, net-zero emissions by 2040

Microsoft Azure

  • Global market share: 18%
  • Major customers: LinkedIn, HP, ASOS, Walmart, Samsung
  • Climate milestones: Carbon-neutral in 2012, 100% renewables in 2014
  • Future goals: Net-zero emissions by 2030.

Google Cloud

  • Global market share: 8%
  • Major customers: Spotify, PayPal, HSBC, Shopify, Snapchat
  • Climate milestones: Carbon-neutral in 2007, 100% renewables in 2017
  • Future goals: 100% on-site renewables – timeline TBC.
Carbon Footprint of the Internet- Cloud Market Share
Carbon Footprint of the Internet- Cloud Market Share. Source: https://www.statista.com/

From the list above, there are two important notes:

  • Carbon-neutral refers to the company purchasing carbon credits to offset its emissions over a 12-month period. The company calculates its annual carbon footprint, and then buys offsets that will, at least in theory, balance out its emissions. Microsoft has unveiled a plan not only to be carbon-neutral – but to re-capture all of the carbon dioxide the company has ever created.
  • Renewables refers to energy sourced directly from solar and wind farms, combined with purchases of renewable energy credits, and like the carbon footprint, these are based over a 12-month period. Google has recently announced that eventually, it would like to use 100% renewable energy on an hourly basis.

Carbon Footprint of the Internet: Emissions of Our Daily Activities

With so much of our time spent glued to our smartphones, computers, and televisions, it useful for us to know what impact each individual activity has on the environment.

It’s important to note that these figures are a guide only, and will vary depending on your location, your internet connection, and the mix of renewable energy in your local electricity grid.

Websites

According to reset.org, the average website produces 4.61 grams of Co2 every time someone views a new page. For a site that averages 10,000 page views per month, that equates to 553 kg of Co2 emissions per year.

If you’re interested in finding out the eco-credentials of your website, you can use websitecarbon.org to view your carbon emissions, compare your site against others, and get some suggestions about how to make your site more environmentally-friendly.

Carbon Footprint of The Ecobahn Website
Carbon Footprint of The Ecobahn Website. We’ve got some work to do! Source: https://www.websitecarbon.com/

Emails

The carbon emissions of a single email can vary dramatically, depending on the content. A basic text email creates around 4g of Co2, but with a photo attachment, this figure rises to 50g.

Infographic showing carbon footprint of letter vs email vs SMS
Carbon footprint of letter vs email vs SMS. Source: Esendex

These numbers may not seem like much, until you consider that we send and receive around 300 billion emails every single day. (and for those of you playing along at home, that’s more than 100 trillion emails a year)

In the UK, retailer OVO Energy announced that Britons were sending around 64 million ‘thank you’ emails every day, which were creating significant, unnecessary carbon emissions.

“If each adult sent one less email a day, Britain could reduce its carbon output by 16,433 tonnes – equal to more than 81,000 flights from London to Madrid.”

Research Study by OVO Energy

Video Streaming

There’s considerable debate about the emissions of video streaming – which now consumes around 60% of all internet bandwidth. Depending on which report you read, watching 30 minutes of Netflix produces anywhere between 28g and 1,600g of Co2 – but the real figure seems to be on the lower end.

Netflix currently streams around 165 million hours of content every day, and the company’s total power consumption in 2019 (including that of its AWS data centres) was the equivalent of 40,000 US homes.

With the internet powering our daily lives but remaining largely invisible from a carbon perspective, some are now calling for online companies to be transparent about their environmental impacts, and make more of an effort to power their services with renewable energy.

“We need to be using renewables to power the technology revolution. You wouldn’t buy a lightbulb without knowing how many watts it was using, so companies need to be raising awareness and they need to be more transparent.”

Sharon George, Keele University

Green Web Hosting and Cloud Providers

If you’re interested in exploring web and cloud hosting providers with green credentials, and reducing the carbon footprint of the internet usage, here are a few worth a mention:

  • GreenGeeks is one of the pioneering eco-friendly web hosts, GreenGeeks claims to be ‘300% green’ through its purchase of renewable energy credits. For every kilowatt-hour of electricity that the company uses, they pay to have three kilowatt-hours returned to the grid from solar and wind energy.
  • Kualo is a lesser-known web hosting provider that has started to gain momentum in recent times. The British company is powered by 100% renewable energy – predominantly wind power – via purchase agreements in the UK and US.
  • HostPapa is a 100% carbon-neutral web hosting company that operates in countries all over the world. Headquartered in Canada, the company purchases green energy offsets from renewable energy suppliers.

If you’d like more information about these companies and others, techrader.com has published a detailed list of web hosting and cloud providers that use renewable energy, purchase carbon credits, and are working to reduce their emissions.

Carbon Footprint of the Internet– The Future Is Promising

Despite the continual expansion of the internet, and therefore the carbon footprint of the internet, advances in the efficiency of large data centres, coupled with the increasing mix of renewables in the global energy supply, are helping to push emissions on a downward trend. 

Despite their flaws, it’s encouraging to see that the companies providing the majority of global cloud services – Microsoft, Amazon, and Google – are making significant investments into solar, wind, and large-scale battery storage.

And whether it’s motivated by corporate policy, pressure from employees, backlash from the public, or perhaps a combination of all three, the large data centre owners are taking some significant strides in a greener direction.

And just as ‘the cloud’ takes its name from something in nature, our goal should be to power all of our entertainment, apps, and business activities with energy that doesn’t add to the climate problem.

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