Digital technology is running up against its physical limits. One solution is to build more data centers - but that needs to go hand in hand with a reduction in their carbon footprint.
For reasons you can imagine, much of what we used to do in the physical world is now being done virtually. That’s having an effect on energy-related pollution - CO2 emissions from manufacturing and transportation have fallen drastically, for example. But there has been a concomitant increase in energy use for digital services. Exact numbers aren’t yet available, but according to Babak Falsafi, the director of EPFL’s EcoCloud center, the trend is clear. "Behind every digital service we use lies a data center. And we’re heading towards a world where everything is done digitally, across all markets and industries."
Falsafi continues: "A lot of business activities have been shifted online because of the pandemic, causing a huge surge in demand, mainly for video. Non-work-related demand for streaming has also exploded. What’s more, today’s ultra-high-resolution screens use up a lot of energy. People don’t understand everything that’s involved in watching a movie in 8k - a lot of power is needed for all that data processing and transfer. You put that all together and it’s huge!"
Relentless rise in demand
The current situation is set to last for a while longer: it’ll be weeks, or probably months, before a vaccine is ready - and that’s without factoring in a second wave. Many organizations, including schools and universities, have announced that they will keep holding classes online, at least partly. But the issue of data-center-related emissions was already a pressing one before the pandemic. "New technology like the internet of things, artificial intelligence, 5G and 4k televisions - which are now going to 8k - has pumped up demand, and therefore energy use," says Falsafi. According to an article appearing in MIT Technology Review last year, training a single Transformer artificial intelligence model can generate as much carbon emissions as five American cars throughout their useful life. In another example, Netflix announced that its electricity use jumped 84% in 2019 to 451,000 megawatt-hours, or enough to power 40,000 homes in the United States for a year.
Some studies predict that digital technology will account for 8% of global electricity use by 2030 - up from 3-5% today - and 4% of CO2 emissions. This includes data centers, those huge buildings that house the servers we use to store, process, analyze and transfer data on the cloud (the biggest data centers already consume hundreds of megawatts). It also includes, in an equal measure, the telecommunication systems that transport those data. Consumer electronics and the energy used to build computing facilities also play a role, albeit smaller.