As the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change gets under way, environmental activists point the finger at the usual suspects: air travel, the internal combustion engine, wasteful spending, consuming non-local products, etc. However, we are seeing more and more questions asked about the carbon footprint of information and communication technologies. The internet relies on servers, routers, and more importantly, data-storage facilities in order to operate. These have two specific environmental issues, firstly they consume energy, and secondly, they produce heat.
The problem is real. According to the Green Grid, it is estimated that in 2000 data centres consumed 30 billion kWh/year. By 2006 the figure had doubled to 60 billion kWh/year, and it is thought that this year it might be reaching 90 billion. To put these figures in perspective, 80 billion kWh/year is roughly the annual electricity consumption of Belgium.
The solutions are not easy. Better technology, more efficient servers and less energy-hungry processors are just part of the solution. As consumption is only set to increase, we will have to seriously think about the carbon implications of our online addictions.