THE NEW ERA OF DIGITAL POLLUTION


Nowadays, we can do pretty much everything thanks to the new technologies: watching TV with replay or streaming new series, listening to endless playlists on spotify or apple music, stocking thousands and thousands photos on the Cloud, video calling hours and hours on FaceTime and so on. All of that is possible because of the new technologies and connected devices. But do you know that every single digital-related action we take does pollute? The general public has little awareness of these issues and the political class ignores the problem.


Internet pollution and the digital carbon footprint

Computers, smartphones, data centers, networks and connected objects already consume 10% of the global electricity consumption. The increase in video usage, the coming explosion of the Internet of Things and blockchain or massive data processing with artificial intelligence will further aggravate the digital carbon footprint.

Here are some facts about the carbon footprint of the Internet:

  • 10%: percentage of the electricity is consumed by data centers in France. A data center is a physical place where the servers are stored.
  • 2019: the year when the Net will pollute more than civil aviation.
  • 2%: percentage of CO2 emissions are due to the Internet. In four-year time, this figure should double.
  • 30 emails deleted: this equals the consumption of a lighted bulb for 24 hours.
  • 80%: percentage of emails never opened.
  • 33: Number of emails sent on average per day by an employee of a company in France. That is the equivalent in CO2 emissions of 1,000 km traveled by car.
  • 10 billion: number of emails sent every hour. The equivalent of 4,000 tons of oil or the production of 15 nuclear power plants in one hour
  • 126,813,600,000: number of bottles of one liter of CO2 emitted per hour because of emails.


E-Waste and how does technology use natural resources?

What do we do with our old phones or laptop when we buy new ones? What is the impact of the increasing amount of techno-trash to the environment? Most of the environmental impacts of the technology occur at the beginning and end of a device’s life.


Impact of production

According to a study by the United Nations University, 81% of the energy needed for a computer is spent during its production. That is, more energy is needed to create a computer than to operate it throughout its life. This makes computers different from other home appliances, which tend to use more energy during their lifetime than in production. As a result, if you are zealous about turning off your computer, you are still involved in huge initial power generation.

The UN calculates that the average production of a computer and a monitor requires 530 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water.


Impact of elimination

The United States exports 50 to 80 percent of its e-waste to poor Asian countries for « recycling » purposes. This may sound positive, but the word « recycling » conceals the devastating environmental effects of the international dumping.

What really happens to the « recycled » techno-trash is that it is treated by poor workers in rural cities like China and India. One of the most famous examples of a technology recycling city is Guiyu, China. Informal recycling operations in these cities do not have the resources to safely recycle technological materials. They expose workers and their communities to shocking levels of toxic substances, turning cities into contaminated dumps.

A report published in 2002 by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition gave rise to a harsh criticism of how the United States is treating its techno-trash: “unlike most other developed countries, the United States has refused to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, which prohibits the transportation of toxic waste (including techno-trash) from one country to another”. The convention prohibits all such cross-border transport, even for recycling purposes.

Most techno-trash that do not travel to Asia are usually located in local landfills, where they pose risks to surrounding communities.


Data Centers and energy consumption

Digital information is stored in data centers, huge server sheds. The functioning of machines consumes loads of energy, as their operation is continuous. The temperatures generated by their activity are high and, to ensure proper operation, it is necessary to keep a constant temperature of 25°C. Cooling systems that also consume energy are essential. In 2008: 56 billion kilowatts were needed for their operation. This figure is expected to reach 104 billion by 2020, almost double:

  U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants. Global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts (4.16 x 10 watts) (or about 3% of the total electricity) last year, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom. And this consumption will double every four years. »

Well, this shocking performance plateau and the data center power problem are deeply interrelated. Both have their origin in device physics and processor microarchitectures:

  In the good old days, more than a decade ago, semiconductor process shrinks gave us both higher performance and power reduction at the same time. Now, process shrinks no longer give us more speed, nor can they offset rapidly increasing power consumption by data centers« .


Can « GreenTech » help against the negative impacts of digital on the environment?

Paradoxically, digital in itself is a solution to meet environmental challenges. The « cleantech », or « envirotech » or « greentech » solutions, sometimes revolutionary, are deployed in many areas: clean and renewable energies, optimization of energy consumption and food circuits, water and waste management, green mobility, smart public lighting, real-time monitoring of forests, air or oceans, new less polluting materials… Green innovation is so promising that many believe that the digital revolution is already making a strong contribution to the transition ecological.

 or « greentech » solutions, sometimes revolutionary, are deployed in many areas: clean and renewable energies, optimization of energy consumption and food circuits, water and waste management, green mobility, smart public lighting, real-time monitoring of forests, air or oceans, new less polluting materials… Green innovation is so promising that many believe that the digital revolution is already making a strong contribution to the transition ecological.

In fact, the problem does not lie here. The share of digital in greenhouse gas emissions doubled since 2013. In fact, the carbon footprint is currently growing each year, making the digital revolution unsustainable for the environment. Every single evolutional green technology that comes out hoping to solve an environmental problem introduce somehow new risks to the environment.

For example, we underestimate the impact of artificial intelligence, which requires a huge data storage, the blockchain, which requires a huge computational power or the smart cars, which requires an intensive batteries production. This green technology is not yet fully developed, but its disruptive potential is similar to that of the Internet. Its environmental impact could therefore pose a real problem.

For example, we underestimate the impact of artificial intelligence, which requires a huge data storage, the blockchain, which requires a huge computational power or the smart cars, which requires an intensive batteries production. This green technology is not yet fully developed, but its disruptive potential is similar to that of the Internet. Its environmental impact could therefore pose a real problem.


The pollution in our natural environment, our financial environment and our digital environment are already irreversible. The promises of new technologies are consistently compromised as soon as some critical mass of their adoption emerges. Saving our digital industry from harming our mother nature will require more than only big brains. It will require also very big hearts.


Thanh Quach
Master 2 Cyberjustice promotion 2018-2019


Sources:

https://blog.cleanfox.io/did-you-know-it-en/10-scary-facts-internet/

https://www.nrdc.org/resources/americas-data-centers-consuming-and-wasting-growing-amounts-energy

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/global-warming-data-centres-to-consume-three-times-as-much-energy-in-next-decade-experts-warn-a6830086.html

https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/is-your-internet-use-destroying-the-environment/

http://www.digitalresponsibility.org/technology-depleting-resources-and-pollution

https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2017/12/15/why-energy-is-a-big-and-rapidly-growingproblem-for-data-centers /

https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2019/the-world-is-choking-on-digital-pollution/


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