This action actually started as a simple attempt to clean my (virtual) house, and not as a climate action. And its not like this is a hugely impactful action, either, but like most everything else we do as individuals, its a small drop in a big ocean full of climate change.
I was cleaning out my various photo albums both on my computer and online, and it occurred to me to wonder whether our digital footprints also have a carbon one. What I mean is, when I stick 8300 pictures of my dog on Facebook, or link to 800 websites with LOLcats, am I using a measurable amount of energy?
It turns out I am; not a lot, but some. What’s interesting about this question is that in many ways, cloud computing and its allies- that is, all the stuff, not just facebook but the lots and lots and lots of stuff that we do that gets stored somewhere else besides our computers- has been a major boon for energy savings. The company I used to work with saved a ton of money and energy by going to cloud computing several years ago, and it certainly wasnt alone- lots of folks in the technosphere have touted some massive cost and energy savings associated with companies moving into the cloud.
However, as with all environmental issues, the answer ain’t that simple. Our global IT energy demands are growing at an exponential rate, which isn’t hard to understand if you think about the fact that just about, well, everything is managed, analyzed, printed, and/or sold using computer systems these days across a lot of the world. Accordingly, a recent Greenpeace report estimated that energy use associated with cloud computing would triple by 2020 to an estimated >1000 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents (by the way, Greenpeace, I think your units are all wrong in this document, and I recalculated the number based on your assumptions and got this, but that’s an argument for another day). How much is that? Well if the average US household uses about 48 tons of carbon a year, that’s like 22 million households worth of emissions that are linked to stuff we do in the cloud. Whew.
So the bottom line is, the stuff we do in the cloud, while arguably a huge energy savings over not having cloud capabilities, does still have an impact. And this is why it is a big deal how data centers are sited and how they are supplied with energy. Google has been touted for many of their green initiatives when it comes to saving energy in their data-intensive world. Facebook has been lagging behind Google a bit on this front, though recent signs, including publication of their carbon emissions data and a pledge to commit 25% of their energy use from renewables shows they are getting serious about their energy sourcing and reductions. And this isnt surprising-energy is one of the biggest costs for these companies, so reducing these costs can make a huge difference to their profitability, never mind their green image.
How does this translate back to you and I? Well its unlikely I, you, or anyone else is going to stop Googling or Facebooking or (I hope!) reading blogs any time soon. And- as with all the other things you and I do as individuals- our individual impact isnt huge- your use of Facebook for a year has about the carbon footprint of a latte. BUT, it is important to keep in mind that there’s no free lunch, even in the virtual world. So today I deleted a couple hundred photos off my facebook account and not only do I feel a few micrograms of carbon lighter, its also, frankly, just nice to unclutter stuff.