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While we think of the Internet as being a "virtual world," it still has an impact on Planet Earth.
An Aug. 12 Guardian newspaper article suggests that the carbon footprint of the Internet is about 1 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. According to the article, the Internet releases about 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This is as much as all the oil, gas and coal burned during one year in Turkey or Poland or over half of what is burned in the United Kingdom, the London-based newspaper reported.
How does this happen? A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released by a certain activity or company. This can be tricky to calculate, but author Mike Berners-Lee, who co-penned the Guardian article and the book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, is giving it a try.
A major component of the Internet's carbon footprint is the use of electricity by data centres, the buildings that contain servers stuffed full of online content. These places suck electricity not only to power the servers, but also for the air conditioning needed to cool them. A 2007 study by information technology research company Gartner states these data centres account for half a percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
There is also the issue of powering computers and their monitors. The Gartner study states that they account for about 0.8 per cent of the global emissions. Of course, not all of the time was spent on the Internet. Berners-Lee and Guardian article co-writer Duncan Clark employed the theory that about half of the computer emissions were due to Internet use to come up with their final figure of about 1 per cent. It is similar to the 343.5 million tonnes of emissions that an April 2009 report by Klinckenberg Consultants attributed to consumer and commercial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) use in 2005.
The same report suggests that the ICT sector's carbon footprint will increase by 60 per cent by 2030. If this is correct and global emissions decrease – as climate change experts estimate they will – then the Internet's portion of carbon dioxide emissions will increase significantly.
What can be done?
Efforts are underway to try to reduce the Internet's carbon footprint. For example, a June 24, 2009 Guardian story reported on a three-year trial in Switzerland to use heat created by data centres to warm nearby buildings. The article also stated that Google is investigating ways to reduce its energy use, including putting data centres on barges and using sea water to cool them. Another idea is to place data centres in old coal mines to make use of the cooler temperatures underground.
Moving data centres to places such as Iceland is also a possibility. A 2008 Guardian article stated that Iceland is the first country in the world to claim it obtains 100 per cent of its energy and heat from renewable sources. About 80 per cent of its electricity is generated through hydropower, and geothermal fields are estimated to provide up to the remaining 20 per cent of the nation's electricity.
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