Technology and Climate Change | Natural Language Institute

Technology and Climate Change

Written by Flávia | Student - 09/mar/2020 #Science and Technology

Do software developers have a responsibility in combatting climate change? They do. Webpages can be heavier or lighter, and that implies more or less energy consumption. Running ads and streamlining videos are two of the top electricity drainers, and that means we need to use natural resources to consume them, either voluntarily (Netflix videos) or not (advertisement interruptions). There are two important caveats to this story here, though. First, we don’t need to be running on fossil fuels to have our laptops and cellphones on, and in that sense renewable energy can be a big part of the solution. And second, data storage spends a good share of electricity in the technology world, and cloud computing has been an important share of the solution.

Streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity annually than the yearly output of two new refrigerators. Some estimates account that streaming could easily be 10 percent of global electricity by 2030. Ads also represent a lot of energy consumption, and an illustrative example comes from the magazine USA Today, which had scripts and ads removed because of the European Data Protection Regulation. The unintended but positive consequence was that their website shrank from 5 megabytes to 500 kilobytes. But who doesn’t like to watch movies at the comfort of one’s own bed after a full day’s work? And how do we prevent ads from running, since their owners are the very sponsors of the contents we consume? There is not an easy solution there.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that only 40 percent of the world population has access to the internet at all. This means that we will see a significant increase in demand for electricity in the near future for newcomers, and this in a field that has already surpassed aviation in terms of energy consumption. Beyond 2030, we could see the total electricity usage of the internet rise to more than 50 percent of the global usage, which will in turn contribute to global warming and disadvantage large parts of the global population.

One inevitable consequence of this huge expected increase in internet (and energy) consumption is inequality. Just as there will be a clear apartheid between those who can and cannot pay to avoid the consequences of climate change, so there will also be a division among those who can and cannot afford a good quality internet access. In China, for example, there are already two internets, one for people in the countryside, another for the urban counterparts.

So how can we work to attenuate this huge energy consumption and inequality that is being envisioned for the future?

First, even though we can say that the internet is the largest coal-fired machine on the planet, what the web needs to run is electricity, and that can come from many sources. For example, in the United Kingdom, 40 percent of goods are powered by renewable sources. Elon Musk, the legendary Tesla entrepreneur, has been heavily investing in electric cars and solar panels, and that is something feasible, not an unattainable dream. He argues that the states of Arizona and Nevada could generate enough solar energy for the entire United States, if politicians so wished.

Another interesting aspect is that a large part of the energy consumption comes from the need to maintain massive datacenters, and that has been revolutionized in the last few years by cloud computing. It is estimated, for example, that clouding can lower the total energy consumption of some software applications by up to 87%. Google, Microsoft and Facebook, the “big three” in technology, have been strongly investing in virtual storage. As a result, consumption of electricity in the United States in the last five years have been constant.

That message here is that we are talking about a technology challenge, and not some type of technological unsolvable problem. By producing clean electricity and investing in green technology such as cloud computing, it is possible to make the internet sustainable and accessible to all. With chance, we will not even see so many ads in the future interrupting our then “green” video streaming.


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