I thought I’d make this letter a quiz. It’s the best format I know for introducing some of the Internet footprint’s invisible issues.
Name three of the Internet’s main energy guzzlers.
Embodied energy. This is the energy used to design a product, extract and refine its raw materials, prepare and ship every necessary substance through its supply chain, then manufacture and ship every finished device and infrastructure part to its end-user.
Access networks. An access network provides internationally deployed infrastructure including cellular sites, fiber optics cables, copper legacy wires, satellites, battery backups. antennas and routers… so that users can access cellular and Internet services.
Data storage centers. Data centers store websites, videos, GPS, software, social media posts, email, utility data, and financial, medical, education and military records. Data centers are packed with computers from the floor to the ceiling—and cooling systems that keep the computers cool. Some data storage centers are large enough to be visible from outer space. UK data center expert Ian Bitterlin says that the amount of energy consumed by data centers doubles every four years. Data centers account for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as much as the aviation industry1. By 2025, data centers alone are projected to consume 4.5 percent of total global electricity. Their CO2 emissions grow 13% per year.
Every manufactured device uses energy from its cradle to its grave. How much of its cradle-to-grave energy has a laptop used before its end-user turns it on for the first time?
Why does energy efficiency increase energy use and extraction?
As devices get more efficient and less expensive, more people buy them. Manufacturing more devices means increased extraction of more raw materials and increased energy use. (For more info, study the Jevons Paradox).
What are transistors?
Transistors are the building blocks of a computer. Transistors are made from semiconductors. They amplify, control and generate electrical signals so that our devices can transmit and receive signals, store data, provide memory and apps. One electronic device can contain billions of transistors. Soon, I will write a letter about how semiconductors and transistors are made.
Compared to the number of grains of wheat and rice grown by the entire world’s farmers, how many transistors do manufacturers fabricate?
Manufacturers fabricate 1000 times more transistors than farmers grow grains of wheat and rice combined2.
How many substances are in one smartphone?
Name five substances in a smartphone.
Copper, lithium, gold, coltan, silicon. In another letter, I will write more about the substances in a smartphone… and my dream that every user learns the cradle-to-grave supply chain of one substance.
In 2007, Google committed itself to addressing the world’s climate and energy challenges. The company aimed to develop renewable energy that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired plants can. The project’s lead engineers believed that by improving renewable energy technologies, “our society could stave off catastrophic climate change.” Why did Google abandon this project in 2011?
The engineers realized that “even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions.”
In 2015 his paper, On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology, Huawei consultant Anders Andrae predicts that by 2030, info-communications-technologies (ICT) could consume what percentage of global electricity use?
Andrae predicts that ICT could emit what percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030?
What is Huawei?
The Chinese corporation that has contracted to deploy 5G infrastructure for the UK and Canada.
What is 5G?
Fifth generation of wireless infrastructure. 5G will support the Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine communication. (For example, a chipped diaper can message a parent’s diaper that the baby’s diaper needs changing.) The industry also promises that 5G will provide faster service. In future letters, an engineer and I will write about 5G’s energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and disruptions to weather predicting and climate change-measuring equipment.
Globally, how many tons of electronics do we discard every year?
53.6 million metric tons.
What percentage of e-waste did we recycle in 2019?
17.4%. This means that 83.6% of e-waste was dumped or burned.
Name three ways to reduce our digital footprint.
Wait at least four years to upgrade to a new device. Insist on repairable, upgradable, modular electronics. Since mobile devices use ten times as much energy as wired, download videos via wired devices. On websites, minimize videos, pop-ups and slide shows. These consume LOTS of energy and thereby emit lots of CO2. Link or embed videos. Do not re-post them.
Greta, as I close this letter, I wonder how we users could recognize the Internet’s limits and generate ways to reduce our footprint. Could every Internet user ask: “What are signs of too much Internet for our society? What are signs of too much media use for me, personally? While Covid-19 increases our media use exponentially, how/can we reduce it?”
1 Pearce, F., Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient? Yale Environment 360, April 3rd, 2018.
2 Mills, Mark P., Energy and the Information Infrastructure, 2018.
3 Needhidasan, S., et al., Electronic waste--an emerging threat to the environment of urban India, J. Environ Health Sci. Eng., Jan. 20, 2014.