Why computing shouldn’t cost the earth

The rapid growth of information technology around the world poses environmental challenges that the big computing firms are only just starting to catch up with. Bill Thompson reports.

When United States congressman Edward Markey was invited to address the United Nations climate-change meeting in Bali at the end of 2007, he decided that he could not justify the environmental impact of flying to and from Indonesia. Instead of making the trip, he delivered his talk on’s “virtual Bali”, a computer-generated island in the online world of Second Life.

Markey was deservedly praised by environmental activists for refusing to fly thousands of miles in order to argue for attempts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. Yet even his appearance as a computer-generated “avatar” in Second Life should have come with a carbon offset, because our online activities are just as capable of adding to our carbon footprint as short-haul flights, unnecessary car journeys and TVs left on standby.

The online world of Second Life, like every website, email message, online video and downloaded podcast, exists in the memory, processors and hard drives of real physical computers, and they all use electric power that has to be generated somewhere, often from fossil fuels. 

While each processor, hard drive or wireless router consumes a tiny amount of power, the rapid increase in the number of laptops, personal computers and large server farms supporting business needs is a matter of growing concern. Since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, the number of users of information and communication technologies (ICTs) worldwide has tripled, and all projections show continued rapid growth.

Although the first half-century of computing was characterised by a complete lack of awareness of either energy efficiency or environmental impact, there are signs that this has changed. The international standards bodies responsible for electrical technologies and telecoms, the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) and the ITU (the International Telecommunication Union), are actively promoting ways to reduce energy use and minimise the impact of the IT infrastructure that supports the global economy.

The IEC has had a focus on electrical energy efficiency for many years, but it now stresses the environmental importance of reducing energy use as much as the economic. It has set up an online community, WattWatt, where people can share ideas, discuss options and debate the issues.

More recently the ITU has begun to address the question of the energy use – and carbon load – of computing and communications technology. In April this year it launched a new work programme aimed at investigating the role that ICTs play in causing global warming and in monitoring, mitigating and adapting to climate change, holding conferences on the topic in Kyoto and London.

The dual emphasis on the impact of ICTs and their role in reducing climate change is important. While the energy consumption and carbon load of computers need to be reduced, we can also use computers to help us manage our energy use. At the ITU London event Dave Berry, from the UK’s National e-Science Centre, noted that demand for computing power is growing so fast that efficiency gains will not be enough to reduce the carbon load of ICTs in future. He has developed tools to calculate the carbon cost of running particular programmes, rather as modern smart meters let consumers see the impact of their home energy use, so that companies can appreciate the environmental impact of their computer use.

The growth of the web has been accompanied by the emergence of vast data centres, sometimes called server farms, containing thousands of networked computers working together to provide the data storage and processing power needed by Google, Amazon, Baidu, eBay and the other firms whose operations characterise the network world. These data centres use vast amounts of electrical power, and the processors and other components generate a great deal of heat in operation. 

Until recently that heat was considered a waste product, and extra power would be used to run air conditioning and cooling systems. This profligacy is now less common, however, not because of a growing realisation of the environmental damage caused, but because energy costs have increased to the point where even the richest firms are feeling the strain.

Chip manufacturers like Intel and AMD now promote the energy management features of their latest generation of processors, while IBM, has launched “Project Big Green”, a play on the company’s nickname of “Big Blue”, which offers new cooling technologies for servers, real-time monitoring of power usage and new designs for large data centres that will significantly reduce their carbon footprint.

Professor Andy Hopper, from the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University, has a more radical idea, suggesting that server farms should be moved to locations where green power is easily available. The physical location of a server is not entirely irrelevant in the internet age, but there is certainly no need to have computing power in the same building, street or even city. Some of the big data centres are already located in areas where they can be powered by hydro-electricity.

Energy efficiency and environmental impact matters to industry at times of high prices, but the danger of relying on the market is always that short-term decision making is not resilient when circumstances change. Building energy efficiency into international standards for computers and network equipment will ensure that new systems and services are based around a far more environmentally responsible approach than that which has characterised the first 50 years of computing. If we want to live in a sustainable information age then we have to address the real world impact of our virtual lives.

The time has come to abandon the assumption that computer and internet use is somehow environmentally friendly because it does not involve getting in a car or taking a flight. We need to find ways to help people take positive action with the computers on their desk and the servers that provide our online experiences, as well as the network itself, the cables, connections and computers that together constitute the internet. We need to ensure that the international standards reflect this new approach, so that companies cannot obtain an unfair market advantage by failing to adopt them.


Bill Thompson is an English journalist, commentator and technology critic. His weekly column appears in the technology section of the BBC News website, and he contributes to other publications both on and off-line, including The Guardian, The Register and The New Statesman.

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