Friday, April 26, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - III

It’s easy to think of the Internet as a purely virtual world but the reality is very different: The advocates of the digital companies  say that their industry is environmentally friendly but their true costs are never revealed. The tech sector uses much more than databases and algorithms. It relies  on manufacturing, transportation, physical work, data centres and the undersea cables, personal devices and their raw components. These all come at a cost. It is only by factoring in these hidden costs that we can understand what the shift toward increasing automation will mean.

The tech sector heavily publicises its environmental policies, sustainability initiatives, and plans to address climate-related problems using AI as a problem-solving tool. But, Kate Crawford writes in Atlas of AI, '. . .  Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all license their AI platforms, engineering workforces, and infrastructures to fossil fuel companies to help them locate and extract fuel from the ground, which further drives the industry most responsible for anthropogenic climate change.'

Each object in the extended network of an AI system, from network routers to batteries to data centres, is built using elements that required billions of years to form inside the earth. These minerals then go through a rapid period of excavation, processing, mixing, smelting, and transport before being made into devices that are used and discarded. Electronic devices are often designed to last for only a few years. This obsolescence cycle fuels the purchase of more devices, and increases incentives for the use of unsustainable extraction practices. 

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy sectors, it’s the communications industry that is on track to generate more carbon emissions than all of the aforementioned sectors.. Very few people realise this problem even exists. A BBC report says  that the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions.  Some researchers estimate that the tech sector will contribute 14 percent of global greenhouse emissions by 2040,

Every time we perform simple daily actions like browsing a website, sending and receiving email, using an app on our phones, saving a file to our cloud drives or searching Google, data gets transferred between our devices and the servers that the websites or software are hosted on. The more data that is sent and stored, the more electricity and energy is needed. Even though this is relatively small at the individual level, when this is multiplied by the billions of people globally that are now connected to the Internet, it adds up to a substantial amount (according to some estimates, a single email can produce up to 4 grams of CO2 emission). 

Cloud storage requires a significant amount of energy to power and cool servers.  Cloud data is stored in buildings — massive structures filled with thousands of hard drives - using a mind-boggling amount of energy. There are many data centres around the world, some taking up nearly 200 acres of land apiece. There are miles of fibre optic cables, studded with other fixtures of internet infrastructure that all require power. At the centre, your data is stored multiple times on hard disks, and the constant activity of all those disks creates a lot of heat, which necessitates energy-intensive air conditioners to protect the equipment from overheating.

A Carnegie Mellon University study concluded that the energy cost of data transfer and storage is about 7 kWh per gigabyte. Compared with your personal hard disk, which requires about 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte to save your data, this is a huge amount of energy. Saving and storing 100 gigabytes of data in the cloud per year would result in a carbon footprint of about 0.2 tons of CO2, A single data centre can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes. At 200 terawatt hours (TWh) annually, data centres collectively devour more energy than some nation-states. 

The polluting qualities of data centres are far less visible than the billowing smokestacks of coal-fired power stations so they escape attention. Current statistics show that only half of the world’s population is connected to the internet and therefore contributing to this data deluge. Despite this, IDC noted that the number of data centres worldwide has grown from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today. The amount of energy used by data centres continues to double every four years, meaning they have the fastest-growing carbon footprint of any area within the IT sector.

The most common method for producing crypto-assets requires enormous amounts of electricity and generates large CO2 emissions. It is estimated that the two largest crypto-assets, Bitcoin and Ethereum, together use around twice as much electricity in one year as the whole of Sweden. Crypto-production's high energy consumption is due to its mining process, which is called proof of work. Anyone who wants to mine assets competes to solve an encryption puzzle, and the winner receives new crypto-assets as a reward. The only way to solve the puzzle is by repeatedly running computer programs that guess the right answer. When a large number of crypto-producers' computers work simultaneously, the demand for electricity soars.

Another environmental impact of cloud computing is the electronic waste produced by the industry. In 2018, 50 million metric tons of e-waste was generated globally as equipment is often replaced as soon as more efficient technology becomes available. Other environmental impacts of data storage include the coolant chemicals used in the server rooms, which are often hazardous, and the battery back-ups of the data centres. The components of these batteries are often mined unsustainably, and the disposal of both toxic batteries and the chemical coolants could have a devastating impact on the local environment if not properly managed.  Cloud storage facilities require a significant amount of water for cooling purposes. This water usage can put a strain on local water resources, especially in areas that are already experiencing water scarcity.

Going to a physical store rather than making purchases online is a more eco-friendly way of shopping. The main reason is because of how people shop online: Many buy items online frequently – but they only buy a few items per purchase. When they shop in a store, they aggregate these purchases in a single bulk purchase. Frequent online purchases produce more packaging waste, and online items tend to come from different distribution centres. Both factors result in higher greenhouse gas emissions per item.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - II

Climate change is passed off as a matter of individual responsibility and consumer choice. The notion of the per capita carbon footprint is a good example. It is calculated by dividing a nation’s total carbon emissions by the sum of its population. This measure is used to attribute climate change to the usage of gas-guzzling cars, wasteful usage of domestic energy, meat-heavy diets, and so on. Such a framing excludes institutional emissions, like those related to the US military and to the projection of American power. 

In The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh writes that the literature on climate change mysteriously ignores numbers regarding emission of  greenhouse gases by the military. This is because a decision was taken, at the behest of the US, that emissions related to military activities would be excluded from the negotiations for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Ever since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has continued “to treat national military emissions, specifically international aircraft and naval bunker fuels, differently than other emission types.”

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of consumption of fossil fuels was sixteen gallons per soldier per day. Amitav Ghosh says that today the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States — and probably in the world. The US military maintains vast fleets of vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and many of these consume huge amounts of fossil fuels. A non-nuclear aircraft carrier consumes 5,621 gallons of fuel per hour; in other words, these vessels burn up as much fuel in one day as a small town might use in a year. 

A single F-16 aircraft consumes 1700 gallons of fuel in one hour of ordinary operations. The US Air Force has around a thousand F-16s, and they are but a small part of the air fleet. Add to this battle tanks, armoured cars, Humvees, and so on which also require large amounts of fuel. Nor are these machines idle in peacetime; many of them are in constant use, not just for training and maintenance, but also because the US’s nine hundred domestic military installations need to be connected to its network of around a thousand bases in other countries.

In the 1990s the three branches of the US military consumed approximately 25 billion tons of fuel per year. This was more than a fifth of the country’s total consumption, and “more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.” In 2017, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions was greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel. During the years of the Iraq War, the US military was consuming around 1.3 billion gallons of oil annually for its Middle Eastern operations alone. That was more than the annual consumption of Bangladesh, a country of 180 million people.

The operation of military equipment requires the use of many kinds of toxic chemicals like thinners, solvents, pesticides, and so on. As a result, the Department of Defence “generates 500,000 tons of toxic waste annually, more than the top five US chemical companies combined", and it is estimated that the armed forces of the major world powers produce the greatest amount of hazardous waste in the world. This does not include the emissions and waste products that are generated in the process of constructing weapons, warships, and warplanes. 

The armed forces of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and India are expanding very rapidly, and they are all spending huge amounts of money on energy-intensive systems. “Militarization,” it has been said, “is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor.” Yet the subject is so little studied that, according to three leading scholars in the field, “research on the environmental impacts of militarism [is] non-existent in the social sciences.”

At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, it was agreed that wealthy countries would channel $100 billion a year to poorer nations, to help them cope with the impacts of climate change. But the Green Climate Fund set up by the UN succeeded in raising only $10.43 billion and is now running out of money: it never came close to being funded at the level envisaged at the summit. In that same period the world’s annual military expenditure has risen from slightly above $1.5 trillion to almost $2 trillion.

What is ironical is that the US military knows the reality of climate change. Yet, the Pentagon does not acknowledge that its own fuel use is a major contributor to climate change.  The military’s climate-related plans are mainly oriented toward dealing with the conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate: for instance, struggles over water; regional wars; terrorism; and mass movements of people caused by hurricanes and desertification, droughts and flooding. They assume that the effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier” will only continue to grow more severe, requiring more and more military interventions.

Every year governments around the world justify $1.7 trillion in military expenditure for protecting citizens against entirely uncertain and ill-defined threats. This is supported by many people who, in other regards, would strongly oppose government spending. They argue against climate change on the basis of uncertainty but use uncertainty as a justification for militarypreparedness. 

Mitt Romney, the first presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a one percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”