The social and political ramifications of the internet are reshaping our society more rapidly than we can keep up with, demanding that we look at internet development with a sense of personal responsibility. As demand for data rises, so too does the environmental impact of digital infrastructure, and in turn, the need to course correct, so that we can sustain rapid expansion while combating climate change.
The internet and digital infrastructure in general are not an inherently wasteful enterprise. On the contrary, the industry has been doing more than most others to reduce its environmental impact.
As data centers have evolved, they have gotten more efficient, and so has the hardware they host, says Jonathan Koomey, a researcher, author, and entrepreneur, who has studied energy trends in the digital infrastructure sector for many years.
The tech industry is particularly aware of sustainability issues, he says, not just because of consumer pressure, but also because many large tech companies see the impact of climate change on their business and operations. It’s not easy to make sure everyone gets their internet in the middle of a superstorm, for example.
Digital Infrastructure’s Role in Tapering Climate Change
When thinking about digital infrastructure and climate change, it’s important to keep in mind the physical, energy- and emission-intensive activities that have been replaced with digital substitutes. Many travel miles have been replaced with email, instant messaging, and video conferencing, for example.
“If you think about it in terms of emissions per unit of output (useful work that we get from the Internet infrastructure), the internet is actually a big sustainability bargain,” Koomey says.
In a paper published in Science in 2020, a group of researchers, including Koomey, estimated that data center were responsible for 1% of the world’s energy consumption. “And I think it's a pretty good use of that 1% of the electricity,” Koomey says. “And the reason why I think that is because that 1% helps us make the other 99% of the electricity and all the fuels a lot more efficient.”
In the sixth episode of Traceroute, we address what is arguably the most critical component of digital infrastructure: the role it plays in climate change.
The episode explores the topic of the internet’s energy consumption but also manufacturing and discarding of all the equipment that populates data centers and other communications facilities. Hyperscale platforms have been strengthening efforts to recycle more parts than before and find opportunities to extend useful life of their hardware.
One company that’s been helping them do that is ITRenew, which decommissions used data center equipment and reconfigures and repackages it to make it useful for smaller operators.
“The public cloud companies have many, many millions of servers in their fleets,” says Ali Fenn, president of IT Renew. “They're turning those things over roughly every three years. It's a lot of stuff that has a tremendous amount of remaining life on it.”
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