cryptocurrency

Storing data emits as much carbon as flying 100,000 people to Australia and back


Technology uses up 10% of the world’s electricity (Picture: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

You don’t need a search engine to realise how our lives have become digitally driven.

From mail and messaging to social networks and streaming, online services are the engine of our modern existence.

But for all the good that digital enables, the energy required to fuel our online lifestyles still relies in part on fossil fuels.

Technology draws about 10% of the world’s electricity; were Techland a country it would be the third-largest energy consumer behind the US and China.

So with that in mind, is it time we changed how we live online to cut our digital exhaust fumes?

Cloud services

Cloud services have made a huge impact on our lives during the past decade.

Today, instead of buying CDs or DVDs, we stream music and movies from Spotify and Netflix; we store documents on Dropbox and emails on Gmail; and we entrust photos and videos to Google Photos.

On average we each store 137,237 photos and 943 music albums on cloud services (Picture: Getty Images/EyeEm)

No longer constrained by shelf or disk space, on average we each store — according to cloud storage company pCloud — 500GB of data in the cloud, including 137,237 photos and 943 music albums.

It should come as no surprise that cloud storage isn’t the infinite USB stick in the sky it’s tempting to think of it as: data centres — stadium-sized warehouses stacked with endless rows of computers — power many of the online services we consume.

Their energy footprint is substantial: BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, found that UK data centres consume about an eighth of the country’s total electricity output.

The cloud has been cleaning up its act, running more energy-efficient systems, employing renewable power and even locating centres in the coldest extremes of the world to cut cooling costs: Facebook’s Luleå data centre sits just outside the Arctic Circle and uses the region’s naturally cold air to cool its systems.

Data centres use a huge amount of energy (Picture: Getty Images)

There are undoubtedly environmental silver linings to the cloud too: were our e-books and photos printed on paper instead, or our music still burnt to CDs, an average person’s stack of objects would be three times the height of the Eiffel Tower, consuming substantial natural resources to boot.

One small thing we can all do to reduce the impact of our online data footprint is to regularly spring clean our files and photos.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology calculates that the carbon footprint of UK smartphone snappers not deleting duplicate pictures is equal to 355,000 tonnes of CO2 every year — the equivalent of the entire population of Chelmsford taking a return flight to Australia.

Cryptocurrency

It’s not just our digital files and photos putting pressure on our planet — increasingly our wallets do too.

The future of finance is undoubtedly digital, with Bitcoin and its cryptocurrency cousins likely to form part of our monetary mix. However, digital cash can come with an environmental cost.

The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index charts the estimated power used by the computers that run the Bitcoin network. At its peak in May 2021, Bitcoin consumed an estimated 15 gigawatts of electricity per day, with the cryptocurrency now demanding in excess of 117 terawatts per year. If Bitcoin were a country, it would eat more electricity than the Netherlands or Pakistan (111 and 103.5 terawatt-hours per year respectively).

With no physical coins or notes, cryptocurrencies rely on an energy-intensive process known as ‘mining’ to ensure transactions are validated and digital coins don’t get spent more than once.

If Bitcoin were a country, it would use more electricity than the Netherlands (Picture: Getty Images)

High-performance computers around the world carry out the work with the promise of freshly minted Bitcoin as a reward. As Bitcoin’s price and prominence began to rise, so did the number of prospectors joining the network in the hope of making a quick thousand bucks — and so too did the energy required to keep them all running.

A Bitcoin mining clampdown in China saw global energy consumption fall away sharply last year, along with the value of the cryptocurrency.

Last May, Elon Musk also voiced his concerns about the ‘rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining’, suspending purchases using the currency of cars from his company, Tesla. However, the latest data from the Cambridge Index suggests energy consumption is once again approaching its peak, with the US instead now leading the pack in Bitcoin mining.

Bitcoin is far from the only digital currency in the bank, however, with new and existing cryptocurrencies beginning to favour a more sustainable method of validating transactions, ‘proof of stake’, which researchers believe could use 99.99% less energy than mining.

The second-largest cryptocurrency, Ethereum, is in the process of switching to proof of stake, while others such as Cardano, Polkadot and Polygon are becoming attractive options for investors conscious of their energy impact but still eager to jump on the cryptocurrency train.

Web browsers

While files, photos and finance can have a big impact on the internet’s energy footprint, the more mundane aspects of life online can be responsible for digital pollution too.

In How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint Of Everything, Mike Berners-Lee puts a carbon cost of between 0.3g and 50g of CO2 for each email.

A year’s worth of email has the same CO2 emissions as a 200-mile road trip (Picture: Getty Images/fStop)

On average we receive more than 100 emails a day, with Berners-Lee calculating that a year’s worth of incoming email costs the CO2 emissions equivalent of a 200-mile road trip.

Across the internet more than 300 billion emails are sent every day. While a large proportion of these are spam — 55% in 2018 — energy supplier OVO estimates that were everybody in the UK to send one fewer email each day, the carbon savings would be in excess of 16,000 tonnes each year — the same as more than 81,152 flights to Madrid.

It’s finally time for the inbox housekeeping — the planet will thank you.


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