When coffee and our wine are affected by climate change, we complain about it on Twitter, read on our favorite websites, and watch entertainment videos on YouTube to fill the frozen hole in our hearts. We will do all this until the websites darken and the networks weaken, because ultimately climate change will also happen for our Internet.
That's to say, unless we can prepare the web for future storms.
Huge changes will be needed because, for now, the internet is not sustainable. On the one hand, sea level rise threatens to overwhelm the cables and stations that transmit the Web to our homes; Rising temperatures could make data centers more expensive, as they process ever-increasing web traffic; Forest fires could burn everything. On the other hand, all of these data centers, computers, smartphones, and other devices connected to the Internet consume tremendous energy to build and operate, contributing to global warming and accelerating our collective demise.
To save the Internet and ourselves, we will need to strengthen and move the infrastructure we have built, find cleaner ways to feed the Web, and rethink our interaction with the digital world. In the end, we must recognize that our considerable consumption of online content is not without consequences – if we do not pay, the planet is.
To save the Internet and ourselves, we will need to strengthen and move the infrastructure we have built, find cleaner ways to feed the Web, and rethink our interaction with the digital world.
You probably do not think about it when you like a photo or read an article, but everything you do online is based on a maze of Physical infrastructure. There are data centers hosting the Web and managing huge amounts of information on a daily basis. Optical fiber cables transmit data to our homes and offices, and even across the oceans. There are cell towers that send and receive countless calls and SMS every day.
Overall, this infrastructure has not been built with climate change in mind. Researchers and companies are just beginning to explore how threatened it is, but what they have discovered so far is alarming.
Take a study published last year by researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors decided to examine the vulnerability of the Internet to sea-level rise by superimposing the coastline flood forecast from the National Atmospheric Oceanic Authority with Internet infrastructure data compiled by Internet Atlas. . They found that by 15 years ago, in a scenario predicting a sea level rise from one foot to here, 4067 km of fiber optic conduit cables will likely be under the roof. 39, water constantly. In New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, the rise of the seas could drown about 20% of all subway fiber ducts. These are the lines that physically route our Internet traffic from one place to another. In addition, 1,101 "nodes" – buildings or places where cables rise from the ground, often housing computer servers, routers and network switches to move our data – should also be submerged.
And this is only in the United States. According to lead author Paul Barford, this vulnerability has not been systematically studied elsewhere. But he hopes to find a similar situation around the world.
"There is a huge amount of human population living near the coast and a communication infrastructure has been deployed to meet their needs," Barford told Gizmodo.
Barford was reluctant to speculate on the extent of an Internet disruption that the coming flood of cables could cause. The ducts are usually sheathed in a water-resistant and water-resistant polyethylene tube and, unlike electrical wires, the fiber ribbons inside can handle some water infiltration. But, as the study says, "most ducts deployed are not designed to stay submerged in water." If the water molecules penetrate the microcracks of the fibers, their signal could degrade. The electrical connections to the fiber cables could be fried and if a submerged cable froze, the fibers could break physically.
Nobody knows how long it would take to damage to deploy. Barford suspects, however, that much of the infrastructure at risk will need to be strengthened or redeployed on higher ground. "It will be a big workload," he said.
Gizmodo contacted the telecommunication companies identified by the study as having the most vulnerable infrastructure to know if this issue eluded them. Many did not respond, one said they did not do anything about the threat, and another said their networks would work well because of "adequate redundancy and diversity of routes".
Dave Schaeffer, CEO of telecommunications company Cogent, has expressed confidence in the courage of cables. But Schaeffer said that there was a reason to worry about these places where the cables come out of the ground.
"These would be directly affected if these buildings were to be submerged," he said, adding that even though most nodes in their network were less than 20 feet above sea level more powerful storm surges could be a growing threat. The company had a taste of what could be coming during Sandy's storm, when a network center installed at 10 Pine Street in New York City was inundated by the storm and was forced to move its generator and its fuel tank to an upper floor. , a process that took several months.
At least one telecommunications company is now explicitly planning future climate disruptions. Earlier this year, AT & T teamed up with Argonne National Labs to create a "Climate Change Analysis Tool", which Charlene Lake, Sustainability Leader, told Gizmodo: "Visualizing the Risks of the Rise sea level, neighborhood level and after 30 years. the future so that we can make the necessary adaptations today to contribute to resilience. "Mr. Lake added that AT & T was also testing the tool against high winds and storm surges, and was considering integrating other climate impacts, such as drought. and more serious forest fires.
Barford also reported that the threat of forest fires and storm surges were two future areas of investigation for his group. Then there is the fact that climate change is driving up temperatures, which could increase the need for cooling in data centers, especially those built in hot climates.
Ironically, in a world where these energy-consuming facilities must attract even more To stay cool during, say, a heat wave, local networks could potentially be exposed to increased risk of brownouts, such as the one that hit 50,000 customers in New York last month. And although it's purely hypothetical, if a major data center goes out, this could lead to widespread service disruption.
As Barford has said, "there are cascading effects here that are complicated and deserve attention".
Increase in energy consumption
The Internet can be threatened by climate change, but it is hardly an innocent victim. Our collective dependence on the digital world has a huge impact on the climate.
"Digital mythology is built on words such as cloud," Gizmodo Maxime Efoui, engineer and researcher at the French think tank Shift Project, told Gizmodo. "Something that is not really real. That's how we imagine it.
However, the reality is that it takes a lot of energy to stream all those videos on demand and back them up to the cloud. Anders Andrae, senior expert in life cycle analysis at Huawei, told Gizmodo that the Internet as a whole – including the energy used to power data centers, networks and individual devices, as well as the energy used in the manufacture of these devices – is responsible for about 7% of global electricity consumption, with electrical demand increasing by about 8% per year. A July report by the Shift Project found that digital technologies now account for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire aviation sector. And this footprint could double to 8% by 2025.
"… people seem surprised by the fact that servers run on electricity and that electricity often comes from fossil fuels."
Gary Cook, an IT analyst at Greenpeace, said the footprint was driven by rising demand for data, especially in the richest countries. There are many culprits here, including the move to next-generation networks such as 5G, which will allow for greater data flow, the rise of artificial intelligence, the proliferation of an Internet of objects, all those Bitcoin transactions that consume energy and online video streaming. , which accounted for 60% of global web traffic in 2018, according to the Shift project. From storing videos in data centers to transferring them to our computers and smartphones over cables and mobile networks, everything about watching online video requires electricity, so much so that our collective diffusion emitted as much carbon as all Spain last year.
If these numbers seem shocking to you, well, you are not alone. "Every time I talk to people working in the tech sector, people seem surprised by the fact that servers run on electricity and that electricity often comes from fossil fuels." Chris Adams, director of The Green Web Foundation, a group that helps businesses move to renewable web hosting, told Gizmodo.
It is clear that the dependence of the Internet on fossil fuels must change if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. According to a recent white paper, data centers are an obvious way to start greening the energy supply. This is a significant and growing element that currently accounts for about 2% of global electricity consumption.
It is encouraging that some technology companies have started to do this. Apple now operates all of its renewable energy data centers that it owns or buys in local markets. Google and Microsoft Azure, two of the largest cloud computing companies, are buying renewable energy credits to support the growth of their data centers. This means that as their electricity consumption increases, companies pay for an equal amount of renewable energy to be built elsewhere. While this so-called offsetting strategy does not eliminate the use of fossil fuels to power data centers directly, Google and Microsoft Azure claim to have a long-term goal to achieve this. Google told Gizmodo that many of the company's data centers already saw "a strong degree of hourly matching with regional carbon-free energy," while Microsoft Azure planned to meet 60 percent of its needs. in electricity directly from renewable sources by the end of the year. l & # 39; year.
Because they improve their results, technology companies are also constantly improving the efficiency of energy use in data centers, and there are plenty of ideas to go even further. Google now uses artificial intelligence to automate the cooling of data centers, while Alibaba Cloud, a leading cloud computing service in China, has a "liquid immersion cooling technology" which, according to her, can reduce data center cooling requirements by up to 90%. Some researchers have even suggested the creation of new data centers in Greenland, where alternative development needs would be minimal and hydroelectric power abundant.
however, Anne Currie, an engineer, sci-fi author, and advocate for greening data centers, warned that efficiency improvements would not be enough to clean the Internet, because the more efficient they are, the more we use them . "We simply need to make socially unacceptable Internet hosting on fossil fuels," said Currie.
And most of the experts with whom Gizmodo spoke agreed that the technology sector was not moving fast enough in that direction. Disturbingly, Amazon Web Services, the largest cloud provider in the world, has tripled its data center operations in Virginia since the end of 2014, a state that derives only a small portion of its energy from wind and solar renewable energy. according to a recent Greenpeace report. AWS has also been criticized for its lack of transparency regarding climate issues, including not reporting its energy consumption and carbon emissions figures. (Amazon announced that it would start reporting its carbon footprint this year.)
Amazon Web Services has called the Greenpeace report data "inaccurate mix of energy consumption and renewable energy," adding that the report overestimated "current and projected energy consumption of". AWS "and" does not properly highlight "the company's investments in solar projects. in Virginia. (Greenpeace says that the growth of the AWS data center in Virginia "far exceeds" these investments.) AWS added that it remains "firmly committed" to achieving its 100% renewable energy goal for its global infrastructure, noting that it exceeded 50% 2018.
AWS did not specify when it intended to meet its 100% target and did not propose a target date or the date on which such an announcement could be announced, the request of Gizmodo. Orion Stanger, software engineer and member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an employee-led organization that emerged last year to push Amazon to take stronger action to tackle climate change, stated that his inability to set a date to achieve this goal is a problem.
"We could even go back to 20% [renewables] and later, at some later date, it would reach 100% and that would still qualify under the goal we set, "Stanger told Gizmodo. He would like to see his company set scientific targets for reducing emissions throughout its operations, including in data centers.
"We really want Amazon to lead the way in climate," Stanger said. "He's really a fan of this space."
Paul Johnston, former AWS employee and advocate for green data centers, We believe that if companies are not fined for their impact or if they are not incentivized to switch to renewable energy, the energy transition will not follow what scientists say is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
"I do not think there is any way around it," he said to the question of whether government regulation would be necessary to force companies to make the necessary changes.
For some data centers, greater regulation may finally be on the horizon. In July, Amsterdam, which would be the largest data center in Europe, introduced a temporary moratorium on the construction of new datacenters until basic rules can be established for their operation. The city wants to impose clean energy on power plants, and wants these facilities to capture the prodigious heat they produce – another way that treatment centers contribute to warming – and provide it free of charge to local citizens.
Amsterdam's decision to curb new data centers comes after energy consumption at the city's data centers increased by 20 percent last year. Cook was happy to see the city "intervene and try to restore the management of growth."
"Volunteering has led us so far," he said. "At the end of the day, we need to get the government to step in and level the playing field."
Giving more renewable energy to our data centers, networks and cities would go a long way towards reducing the impact of the Internet on the climate. But the uncomfortable reality that it will be difficult to keep pace in a world where we spend more and more time watching videos and playing games online, browsing the web and browsing our social media ( four activities that together account for nearly 90% of the traffic downloaded from the Web, according to a report published in 2018 by the network company Sandvine).
Some supporters say that we must curb all this consumption. In its recent report on online video, the Shift project is calling for a revolution of "digital sobriety", described by Efoui as implementing policies to limit the growth of the Internet in a world of finite resources.
"If we really understand the gravity of the constraints that come to us and the systems we have built … we have to take them into account," he said.
How can we really control the web is an open question. Should governments impose emission limits on server farms and data centers, as well as the fines of companies that exceed them? Should streaming services like Netflix encourage us to watch HD in standard definition? Will popular disconnection campaigns take place around the world, just like the emerging movement that gives up flying? Efoui believes that we will have to bring together "a lot of solutions" and that different places will adopt different strategies depending on their infrastructure and the needs of society.
The changes must not all be huge. In fact, a burgeoning research field, called sustainable interaction design, shows that small changes to applications and websites can have a serious impact on consumption. A recent YouTube study found that simply allowing users to turn off video streaming while listening to music could reduce the carbon footprint of this service by almost 5% by 11 million tonnes per year. As the researchers note, this "scale" is comparable to Google's climate benefits by purchasing renewable energy to power YouTube's servers.
And this is only an intervention. A notification that encourages social media users to pause in scrolling streams is another possibility. Or, websites could get rid of all those self-broadcast ads that no one was asking for. Kelly Widdicks, a Ph.D. student at Lancaster University, who is studying the impact of using Internet-enabled devices on society and the environment, said Facebook's decision to start auto-reading ads everywhere presented a "massive increase in traffic" for many users.
"Before, you had to interact with the platform to watch something," said Efoui. "Now you have to interact with the platform to stop watching. It's actually a big change. "
Widdicks felt that companies could make some voluntary changes if their customers emitted enough noise, for example, to reduce the health benefits of surveillance. But she also thought it useful to think about the types of limits and restrictions to impose. Mike Hazas, a reader at Lancaster University studying the relationship between technology and sustainable development, agreed, noting that researchers have estimated that the Internet could consume more than a fifth of the world's electricity by 2030.
"If we doubled the airline industry by 2030, that would be a major topic of discussion," he said. (Indeed, it's been years.)
No one can say what form the future Internet will take, but things can not continue as before. And even if individual actions alone will not get us out of this mess, if we change enough behavior, it will make a difference. And there are many places to start.
We can reduce our use of social media. We can think twice before letting the next episode play automatically, or drop the old school and return to the broadcast, which Hazas described as "very effective" compared to streaming. We can ensure that we host websites and buy space on the cloud with companies that have demonstrated a real commitment to clean energy.
Above all, said Hazas, it's important to "make a deliberate decision" rather than being carried away by an endless content buffet. "These are very well designed services," he said. "They continue to use them."
Maddie Stone is a Philadelphia freelancer.