Data's carbon footprint

SUBHEAD: Environment pays the price for boom in laptops and mobiles. By Image above: Detail of image from The Matrix of data flowing over skull. From Technology should be the environment’s friend. Rather than flying around the world to meet a business partner, we can hold a video conference. Rather than printing out and posting a document, we can send an e-mail.

The reality is more complicated. The amount of energy used by information technology is growing fast, and already accounts for about 2% of the world’s carbon emissions – roughly equivalent to that of global aviation. The rate at which the sector is growing, particularly in developing nations such as China and India, means emissions will double by 2020 compared with 2007 levels, according to research by the Climate Group, a nonprofit consultancy. This will add 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – more than twice the current emissions for all of Britain.

Even this estimate could be too conservative. The Climate Group’s analysis relied partly on the assumption that businesses would monitor their carbon emissions and invest in efficiency. It now appears those assumptions were optimistic.

A report by Gartner, a research firm, shows that most firms are not putting systems in place to measure their carbon footprint. In Britain, only 17% of mid and large-sized companies report their carbon emissions.

“This is surprising given that from next year thousands of UK firms will be subject to emissions reporting under the UK’s carbon reduction commitment legislation,” said Simon Mingay, the report’s author.

Gartner found telecommunications firms, which could make the biggest impact on greening the technology sector, are less likely to spend money on energy efficiency in a recession.

“If few businesses are tracking their energy use and sales of efficient IT is as a result lower than predicted, then previous growth estimates of the environmental impact of technology may need to be reevaluated,” said Molly Webb of the Climate Group.

The emissions growth of the technology industry is generally based on the power consumed by its products – laptop computers, for example – and the carbon intensity of that power. This doesn’t always show the entire picture. Laptops are getting much more energy efficient, as is their source of power. But these gains are being offset by growth – laptops will comprise nearly a quarter of all IT-related emissions by 2020, as millions more people use them.

Emissions from mobile phones will also rise to reflect future sales of smart phones like Apple’s iPhone, which consume about 60% more energy than regular handsets.

Across the IT chain, data centres provide the greatest cause for concern. Data centres hold thousands of computers that store information and process the billions of transactions required to run a modern economy.

They need electricity not only to run the computers, but also the large air-conditioning systems that keep them at a constant cool temperature. The world’s 44m servers already consume 0.5% of all electricity, with data-centre emissions now approaching those of Argentina, according to research by McKinsey, the management consultancy.

Demand for digital storage is growing by about 60% a year, according to McKinsey. In America alone, the electricity required by data centres between 2008 and 2010 will be the equivalent of 10 new power plants.

Without efforts to curb demand, current projections show worldwide carbon emissions from data centres will quadruple by 2020.

Data-centre demand reflects the huge growth of the internet. Bandwidth capacity on the web has doubled every year since the mid1990s and shows no sign of slowing down. “More bandwidth demand means that bigger networks and routing systems are needed,” said Jeff Ferry of Infinera, a Silicon Valley technology firm that makes the computer chips that deliver data across the internet.

This growth has led to a sharp rise in IT costs. Data centres typically account for 25% of total corporate IT budgets, but this is rising by as much as 20% a year – outpacing overall IT spending, which is growing by 6%.

Emerging technologies will help ease costs and energy consumption by allowing companies to store more information along the same routes. Infinera’s next-generation chip, the size of a fingernail, will have enough data capacity to carry 1.2m YouTube videos, compared with 300,000 today, and will improve energy efficiency by 80%.

This will allow network providers to send more information along the same, albeit more crowded, path without substantially increasing their costs.

“Because hardware costs are falling rapidly, and energy costs are rising, the cost burden of IT has actually reversed,” according to Jonathan Steel of IT consultancy Bathwick Group. “This means it is more affordable to invest in new, more efficient technologies than to keep old ones that consume more energy.”

Whether companies are willing to make that investment remains to be seen.

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