Internet energy impacts on climate

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New research warns that the growing reliance on smart technologies is leading to a rapid rise in internet energy demand that will push up carbon dioxide emissions. Alex Kirby reports.

SWITCH OFF your computer, dust off your old typewriter, sharpen all the pencils you can find, lay in stocks of postage stamps — and that’s just the start.

Our immersion in the digital society – and particularly our growing reliance on the "Internet of Things" – could mean uncontrolled demand for energy and spiralling emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.

Researchers from the School of Computing and Communications (SCC) at the University of Lancaster, UK, say the growth of remote digital sensors and devices connected to the internet – the Internet of Things – can cause unprecedented and, in principle, almost unlimited rises in the energy consumed by smart technologies.

They warn that the world now needs to consider how to limit data growth on the internet.

Streaming programmes

In a discussion paper, the scientists say internet usage has increased significantly in the last few years, with people watching more video, streaming programmes on 4K ultra high definition smart TVs, regularly checking their social media accounts, and even using online social media to track their runs and bicycle rides.

Ofcom, the British telecommunications regulator, says home monthly broadband data volumes in the UK rose from 17GB in 2011 to 82GB in 2015. Data volumes for mobile devices are typically smaller, but they too are growing rapidly and more than doubling every few years, according to the IT and telecommunications companies Ericsson and Cisco.

This increase in data use has meant a rise in internet energy use, despite improvements in energy efficiencies. The Lancaster team says current estimates suggest the internet already accounts for 5% of global electricity use, but that it is growing faster − at 7% a year − than total global energy consumption, which is increasing at 3% annually. Some experts predict that information technologies could account for as much as 20% of total energy use by 2030.

Up until now, the team says, there has always been a potential ceiling for increases in data on the internet. These include the finite, although growing, number of people on the planet and the limited number of hours in a day that people can use online technology.

But the autonomous streaming of data by billions of sensors built into everything from street furniture, driverless vehicles and smart home thermostats to industrial production processes such as oil wells removes these potential constraints to growth.

Dr Mike Hazas, a lecturer at Lancaster’s SCC, says:

“The internet is consuming an increasing portion of global electricity supply, and this growing consumption is a significant concern in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.”

Speed limit

The researchers believe society needs to think hard about how to limit data growth before the forecast growth of the Internet of Things happens. There are currently 6.4 billion connected Internet of Things devices, a figure estimated to reach possibly 21 billion by 2020.

“The Internet of Things is still in the making and it is important to consider existing ideas for a ‘speed limit’ to the system, especially in comparison to having to retrospectively reduce internet traffic in the future,” Dr Hazas says.

The idea for a speed limit to the growth of internet data was originally put forward by Kris de Decker, a technology journalist who is now a visiting scholar at the Demand Centre, which researches end use energy demand.

The Lancaster authors acknowledge that it is not clear how data limits could be imposed, but say options could include volume quotas and different traffic pricing for the most data-intensive online services.

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