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Carbon Footprint of the Internet, and Cutting Carbon by Fighting Spam

Is it hypocritical to blog about reigning in the carbon footprint of internet?

Treehugger posted recently about Google's comparison of  the carbon emissions from google searches to that of other commmodities: apparently, a cheeseburger equals 15,000 searches:

But when you think about how little 15,000 searches really is (many of us do hundreds a day), it kind of proves the opposite of their point. If anything, with the millions of people using Google at any given minute (probably way more than are eating cheeseburgers or drinking OJ), it's actually kind of alarming.

The Telegraph UK concurs that the 'netification of daily life is coming at a cost to the planet:

With more than 1.5 billion people online around the round, scientists estimate the carbon footprint of the internet is growing by more than 10 per cent each year. Urs Hölzle, Google's vice-president of operations, said it was struggling to contain energy costs despite developing its own data centres. "You have exponential growth in demand from users, and many of these services are free so you don't have exponential growth of revenue to go with it," he told The Guardian.

The internet may be in need of some "true cost economics," because if there ever was something that seemed to have no visible effects on the environment, it's the web. Things that happen on the web are called "virtual" because they are something other than tangible, yet the web may turn out to be another last frontier, yielding returns at a cost instead of a limitless horizon of connectivity. The Christian Science Monitor asked, "Is the internet bad for the environment?

[Internet usage] translates into approximately 2 percent of human-caused C02 emissions, or about the same as produced by the aviation industry. And the amount is likely to escalate in coming years as Internet traffic grows – one estimate is an increase of emissions by 280 percent by 2020.

Yet flying a bunch of people to a conference can't have a lower carbon footprint than creating a video conference. Virtual technologies can reduce paper consumption, digital information is more searchable and malleable and thus more efficient.  A shift in thinking will be required, however, as our insatiable appetite for the web begins to take a larger bite out of our finite energy capabilities.

As someone who works on more than one website for a living, it is a little sobering to think about. What cheered me up was learning about a scapegoat we all can agree to hate: spam! Spam emails are the very definition of waste: they are unasked for, unwanted, and since they are largely unread, can't bring much real benefit to anyone, even the senders.  The CS Monitor says, reporting on “The Carbon Footprint of Email Spam Report” compiled by eco-consultants ICF and commissioned by computer-security firm McAfee:

These statistics come from A single spam message produces the equivalent of 0.3 grams of CO2, the same as driving three feet in a car. Multiply that by 62 trillion pieces of spam circling the globe each year, and you have the emissions equivalent of driving around the Earth 1.6 million times.

So the message seems to be: fight spam when you're online and don't think of your internet time as a blank check, carbon-wise, when you are online. Overall, limiting internet usage is probably a good idea because it means limiting the amount of sedentary time usually spent alone, and it's a useful way to draw a limit between work availability and off-time.

Tags: Consumption, Energy, Google, Internet, Online, Web

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