Monday, July 6, 2009

Computer Hardware and CO2 Emissions

With every upload, download, email, tweet and post (including this one) there comes an energy cost.

In the last couple of years the rise in popularity of online video content and video services has led to prophesies of doom about how the increases in traffic it entails will lead to exafloods of data that ultimately bring the net to its knees. But such fears have proved ungrounded. In fact already exabytes of data regularly course their way through the veins of the internet and in the past two years the growth of traffic has actually dropped from a steady 100% each year-on-year to around 60%, probably thanks to better compression software.

But that's no reason to celebrate. The fact is traffic is still growing. And so too does the amount of hardware infrastructure required to accommodate it. At conservative estimates computer hardware is already on par with aviation in terms of the global CO2 emissions they produce, roughly 2%.

And it's not just the likes of YouTube pushing up the traffic. Facebook, for example, has more than 200 million account holders, of which 15 million update their status at least once a day, uploading nearly a billion photos each month. When you consider that some people, like the US stand-up comic Steve Hofstetter, claim to have as many as half a million friends on Facebook, it's worth remembering that many of these will receive emails every time he posts a gag on Facebook. More pointless traffic.

Generally the traffic generated by these exchanges is minimal compared to video transfer, as indeed is the case for Tweets and even AudioBoos. But the point is that while many people wrestle with their conscience about whether to fly we think nothing of sending emails, messaging, Tweeting or updating our Facebook status. A Google search may only produce 0.2 grams of CO2, but these e-missions quickly add up.