While major international climate talks are underway in the Mexican city of Cancun, scientists in the UK have been looking at the impact of cloud computing on energy consumption.
The future of the Internet is written in the cloud
With each year that passes, the global population becomes increasingly reliant upon the Internet and its sparkling array of downloadables.
In the context of climate change, that growing dependency has prompted calls for the major players in cloud computing and big data to watch their carbon steps.
A new study entitled "Energy Use in the Media Cloud" published Friday by the University of Bristol suggests that not only providers but also their users share the responsibility for minimizing the energy consumption from broadband usage.
Two yeas ago, the "SMART 2020" report on enabling the low carbon economy in the information age, predicted that rapid economic expansion in countries such as China and India would lead to a four-fold increase in demand for ICT services by the year 2020.
It further estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from data centers would more than double in the same timeframe.
In his report, Chris Preist, a University of Bristol researcher, said that although both corporate intranet and business-to-business transactions could be held partly responsible for the growth, the main culprits would be the growing pool of private users who are becoming accustomed to sourcing their audio and video material online and to uploading and sharing material on social networking sites.
He further said that the emissions need not necessarily become explosive as a result of increased Internet use.
Greenpeace says Yahoo and Google are both green-aware
Working on the basis that within just a few years a quarter of the world's population will be relying on broadband for daily activities, Priest put the global demand at 3,200 megabytes per person per day, based on current UK and US consumption of streamed video and audio. He estimated the average power required to support such levels of activity to be 1,175 gigawatts at current levels of efficiency.
"This level of power consumption is clearly unsustainable," he wrote, adding that it would take a 60-fold improvement in computer energy efficiency to make it feasible.
It's a tall order, but not, he insists beyond the bounds of possibility.
"Unlike other industries, the IT industry has consistently made computation more energy efficient," said Priest, in an e-mail. "Just compare a ZX80 from the eighties with a modern machine."
Providing the average westerner's media consumption does not rise substantially beyond current levels, the 60-fold improvement ought to be possible by the year 2021.
But if that proves not to be the case, the British scientist advocates behavioral change strategies, such as reducing digital waste by not subscribing to unwanted podcasts or downloading unnecessary video or audio, to help reach the target.
But Tom Dowdall Greener, a electronics campaign cocoordinator with the environmental group Greenpeace, says the energy efficiency ball lies squarely in the court of cloud providers.
Facebook has opened two new data centers in the US this year
"The cloud infrastructure is expanding rapidly," he told Deutsche Welle.
"Facebook and Apple are building data centers and putting the infrastructure in place for ten years or longer and the choices they make now will decide on the future impact of the cloud computing infrastructure."
Several companies, including Google and British Telecom, both of whom are investing in wind power, have realized the need to be truly green, but others such as Facebook, which has commissioned two new data centers this year to be powered by coal, are doing little to reduce the sector's carbon footprint.
As far as Dowdall is concerned, any company promoting the use of cloud computing should be making sure that growth is sustainable through the use of renewables combined with efficiency.
Preist, who says his research is just a small piece in a very large jigsaw puzzle, believes his findings highlight the important role of cloud companies in helping the world to adapt to the changes brought about by climate change.
"This means that IT companies should actively challenge industry groups that drag their heels over this and enthusiastically be part of the solution."
Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Cyrus Farivar