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Is the Internet Killing our Climate?

By Jessica Oakley You’ve traded in your SUV for an economy car, your 60-watts for CFLs, and your garbage disposal for the added trouble of a compost bucket, all in the name of reducing carbon emissions and saving the world.  But there’s another global warming culprit you might not have considered: your computer. More specifically, the internet surfing that you do with that computer. In 2009, Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross calculated the carbon emissions associated with individual Google searches. Although negligible on their own, the cumulative effect of all that internet time is a “definite environmental impact” that has long gone overlooked. Think we’re kidding? Take a look at some of the facts:
  • Every second someone is browsing a simple web site, roughly 20 milligrams of CO2 are generated. Comparably, an air-freighted orange generates 1kg, or one million milligrams, of carbon emissions.
  • 35 billion minutes are logged online every month from users around the world, according to data compiled earlier this year by Go-Gulf.com.
  • According to anti-virus software firm McAfee, the electricity used to transmit the trillions of spam sent over the course of one year is equivalent to the amount of electricity needed to power more than two million homes. Simultaneously, the carbon output equates to that of three million cars!
  • The global IT industry generates as much greenhouse gas as the world’s airlines according to research firm Gartner.
Although at first it may seem like a far out idea, the reality does make sense.  When you hop onto Google and type in a search, the results don’t just magically appear out of nowhere. All of that information on the web isn’t simply floating out in the great unknown waiting to be plucked. Instead, your query is shot through massive data center buildings that house thousands upon thousands of servers, each of which store some of the information available on the web. Each of those servers also requires a considerable amount of energy to function. The more data they have to filter through and subsequently transmit, the more energy is used, the more greenhouse gas emissions are generated. All of this leads us to believe that our IT industry leaders play a pivotal role in the future of our environment and they need to take that responsibility seriously. So far, organizations like Google seem to be responding appropriately, taking steps to minimize, if not reduce, their environmental impact. For instance, after having spent nearly $1 billion in renewable energy methods, Google data centers use 50% less energy than typical data centers. Yahoo also seems to be taking their duties in stride, making Newsweek’s top 10 list of greenest companies in America due to their efforts of green volunteer initiatives, energy efficient data centers, and their sponsored site Yahoo! Green. But while these specific industry leaders have taken a stand, what about other search engines and tech organizations? After all, even the lesser-known firms still wield significant power over the future of our Earth. Thus, while it may be no small goal for every web-based firm to respond to their environmental impact, it is certainly a necessary one. Jessica Oakley is the Marketing Manager for  FastSatelliteBroadband.org, an Exede Internet partner and a provider of high speed satellite internet services. Jessica also heads sustainable initiatives at the organization and is an advocate for sustainable business practices.
3p Contributor

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