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.

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