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Sci Tech    H4'ed 4/27/20

Behind the Screens: The True Costs of Internet Access

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Several years ago, I started wondering about the Internet's energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste and worker hazards. Nearly every day since then, I've learned something else about the true costs behind our screens, about what it really takes to send an email or stream a video.

While the Internet's footprint becomes visible, so do other questions: Is Internet use within our ecological means? What policies would lead to reduction in the Internet's energy use and ecological impacts? Without Internet access, how can anyone keep a job or go to school or maintain contact with family? How/can we reduce our Internet footprint when, arguably, access to it is a necessity?

In 2018, Soumya Dutta gave a broader context to these questions. Co-founder of India Climate Justice, he explained that according to the World Bank, the average Indian consumes about 630 kilograms of oil equivalent (KGoe) per year. The average Bangladeshi consumes less than 300 KGoe. The average U.S. American annually consumes over 6,000 KGoe. "To provide every global citizen with a decent opportunity for a healthy life--starting with vitally needed basic infrastructure such as clean water and toilets," Mr. Dutta told me, "some of the poorest countries with the lowest emissions might actually need to increase their per capita energy consumption. Then, to reduce sufficiently the burden that humans impose on natural ecosystems, wealthier nations that consume excessive amounts will need to reduce their consumption of energy and water by at least 70 percent,[1] and completely eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions."[2]

I wondered how the Internet's impact on natural ecosystems, workers and communities could become visible to more users.

The Internet's main energy guzzlers

The Internet is the largest thing that humanity has built,[3] and it continues to expand. According to consultants from Huawei, the Chinese corporation that has contracted to deploy fifth generation (5G) wireless infrastructure for Canada and UK, by 2030, info-communications-technologies could consume 51% of total global electricity use and emit 23% of total greenhouse gases. [4] A 2016 study from the Semiconductor Industry reports that by 2040, computers will require more electricity than the entire world can generate. [5]

To assess the Internet's energy consumption, we've got to consider the energy used by manufacturing, operating and disposing of individual devices and by the infrastructure that makes our devices work. Here are the Internet's main energy guzzlers:

Embodied energy This is the energy used to design an electronic device, typically with energy-intensive computer modeling; to mine, wash and transport its raw ores to smelters and refineries; to transport refined materials and chemicals to assembly plants; then to assemble, box and ship each item to its end-user. Eighty-one percent of the energy used by a laptop from its design to its disposal is embodied. [6] Shipping raw and refined materials to their next station is part of a computer's embodied energy. If cargo shipping were a country, it would rank sixth in greenhouse gas emissions. [7]

Access networks Sending a text, streaming a video, Google searches, social media posts (and all other online activities) depend on access networks--world-wide infrastructure for cellular and Internet services. Access networks can include fiber optics cables, cell towers (masts), copper wires, antennas, radio transmitters, routers, battery-backup, satellites and more. [8] It's worth noting that wireless access consumes ten times as much energy as wired;[9] and every infrastructure part holds embodied energy.

Data storage centers Run by governments, businesses, universities and hospitals, some data storage centers are large enough to be visible from outer space. They're packed with cooling systems and computers (containing embodied energy). The servers store websites, videos, software programs, social media posts, medical records, surveillance data, GPS, data collected by smart utility meters, etc. Data centers account for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. [10]

Automated processes These include advertising bots; automatic updates and backups for apps, video games, websites and operating systems; automated systems like smart meters that transmit electricity (or water or gas) usage to a data collector and then to the utility.

Embodied in every computer

One smartphone contains 1000+ different substances. [11] We're talking copper, coltan, fluorinated greenhouse gases (coating for screens), gold, graphite, lithium, n-hexane, quartz, tin and so much more. Briefly, let's review a few of these substances.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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