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Keeping it cool: Data use and our warming planet

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Physical distancing measures around the world have upended people’s lives. As a large swath of the population stays home, internet usage has surged. Historically, the GHG emission impacts of rising internet use have been offset by rising efficiency and use of renewable energy. However, the pandemic-induced spike risks increasing the carbon footprint of data flows.

TORIX, one of Canada’s largest internet exchange points, shows traffic was up almost 50 per cent in June compared with a year earlier. Sandvine, a global networking company, reported a 40 per cent worldwide increase in internet traffic between early February and mid-April. According to Sandvine, 80 per cent of internet traffic is due to video, gaming, and sharing on social media platforms. These are also the categories that saw the largest increases in pandemic-induced activity.

The pandemic has reinforced the dependence and ubiquity of data use in people’s lives. As this dependence grows, we expect that so too will related GHG emissions.

This makes sense. Physical distancing has kept people away from each other, and the need to keep connected via the web has become more pronounced. The pandemic has reinforced the dependence and ubiquity of data use in people’s lives. As this dependence grows, we expect that so too will related GHG emissions.

In 2018 two Swedish telecommunications/networking corporations estimated the global information and communications technology (ICT) sector consumed 800 Terawatt-hours (TW-h) of electricity in 2015. That is nearly 4 per cent of the world’s entire electricity use, or as much electricity as is used by Canada and Mexico combined. Data centres and enterprise networks use about 25 per cent. Fixed/mobile networks also use about 25 per cent. The other half is accounted for by user devices like laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other “smart” devices.

The Swedish researchers also estimated the global carbon footprint for the entire ICT supply chain at about 730 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt of CO2eq.) for 2015. At that size, the global ICT supply chain produces as many GHG emissions as Canada, or 1.5 per cent of the world’s total.

For Canada, there is no readily available information on the carbon footprint of the ICT supply chain; however, we estimate it to be 14 Mt of CO2eq. This includes construction and operation of communication networks, computer and electronic equipment manufacturing, and a portion of residential and commercial energy end use.

That number is less than 2 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions, or the same share in respect to the global ICT supply chain. Given the all-encompassing nature of data use, these are relatively small footprints for energy use and emissions. But in the future, this may change.

Although internet traffic has increased twelvefold in the last decade (or by 30 per cent annually), energy use from data centres has remained flat. The exponential growth has been offset by energy efficiency improvements. In addition, a structural move towards a modern and efficient cloud and larger-scale data centres has helped. A similar trend exists for data transmission networks.

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The GHG footprint of ICT infrastructure’s electricity use is also being offset by large investments in renewable energy. Further supporting decarbonization, the International Telecommunication Union—the UN’s ICT arm—recently announced support for ICT companies in reducing emissions to align with the 2030 Paris Agreement targets.

But exponential data use is expected to continue. Video streaming and gaming, the rising use of smart devices, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality, and 5G are not getting any less popular. If efficiency gains from ICT equipment and decarbonization of the electricity used for data-driven infrastructure fail to keep up with traffic growth, the carbon footprint of our online habits will grow.

One frequently cited study estimates that by 2030, global data centre IP traffic could be 60 to 100 times higher than in 2010. According to this research, by 2030 the ICT sector’s share of global electricity use might be anywhere from 8 to 50 per cent. GHG emissions from these operations may account for as little as 2 per cent, but as much as 23 per cent of the global total.

These estimates have been criticized, but they do provide important insights. First, there is a high degree of uncertainty about how energy use and the carbon footprint of ICT-related activities might evolve in the coming decade. Second, regardless of the scenario, increases are likely over the long term. The impact of our rising internet use remains a bigger question worth thinking about as Canada, and the world, transition to a low-carbon economy.

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