Climate Change Is the Internet's Worst Enemy

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Illustration: Jim Cooke

The internet is causing its own demise. Every line of code requires electricity to run, and much of that electricity comes from dirty fossil fuels. And every belch of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power plants brings the internet one step closer to ruin.

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The rise of smartphones puts more information at our fingertips than ever, while the increasing complexity of websites means it requires more energy to deliver that information. Whether it’s Fortnite or YouTube, the internet’s growing carbon footprint is a huge issue. A 2019 report found that digital technology production and use accounts for 4% of all the world’s carbon emissions, more than global aviation emissions. Energy demand is rising 9% per year, putting the internet at the forefront of the climate crisis.

That sucks, because it turns out a lot of internet infrastructure is on the frontlines of it. Many of the fiber optic cables and nodes that make the internet happen are located at sea level. Research published in 2018 shows that the sea level rise over just the next 15 years could inundate 4,067 miles of fiber permanently, while 1,101 hubs could also be flooded out in the U.S. alone. We’re not experts, but we had a gut feeling saltwater and the internet don’t necessarily mix.

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To find out if it’s true and figure out how to make the internet pollute less and get shored up in the face of climate change, we talked with Maddie Stone in this week’s episode of System Reboot. Maddie was Earther’s founding managing editor and now does freelance work covering a wide variety of topics, including the intersection of technology and the climate. She wrote a killer feature for Earther on this very topic last year and published a piece just last week on how the record-setting California wildfire season is destroying cell towers and affecting first responders. It wasn’t on Earther, but we’ll forgive her.

Take a listen to our chat with Maddie on your favorite podcast app via one of the links below. And consider smashing that like and subscribe button, even if it does emit the tiniest puff of carbon. Then, let’s go fix the internet together.

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Do you have a subject you’d like to see us cover or a person you’d love for us to interview? Let us know!

Senior Consumer Tech Editor. Trained her dog to do fist bumps. Once wrote for Lifetime. Tips encouraged via Secure Drop, Proton Mail, or DM for Signal.

Managing editor, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Good stuff. I listened to about 60% (maybe a bit more) of the podcast, which some folks are saying is above a B minus as far as podcast listing.

Hey, how ‘bout an IEA (International Energy Agency) report on data center energy consumption?

Link to report:

https://www.iea.org/reports/data-centres-and-data-transmission-networks

I’ll spare the graph so here it is in words, like a podcast. From 2010 to 2019 internet use has increased 12-fold and datacenter workload has risen 8-fold, while energy consumption appears to have remained flat over that period.

An interesting thing I read a while ago is that data centers energy consumption may not be fully reported here, there and elsewhere around the world. Chiefly due to security concerns and limited reporting requirements here, there, and elsewhere.

eta: fucked up the link and graciously made the correction. The report linked above includes wonderful graphs.