Thanks to Agfa for pointing us at a recent article in the New York Times looking at the amount of energy the Internet consumes. Facebook, the main subject of the article, has to support over one billion users so the energy required for its servers is stupendous. So how can the emissions on that energy be quantified? Not a simple question, but one that has to start somewhere. For instance, how much data processing power is required to support a single FaceBook user sitting on the site for say one hour per day?
It may sound like an impossible calculation to make, but it is not. It does however depend on the willingness of the likes of FaceBook, Twitter, Google et al to share basic information. To make a stab at calculating the total emissions and then the emissions per page, access for a given period of time requires some fundamentals: information about the servers, their location and number, the overall size of the various data centres, and stats on their disaster recovery systems. Social media have a worldwide reach and use multiple server farms, so the total footprint will be far from trivial. It will also vary per data farm and per user in different parts of the world, depending on the energy mix.
The environmental picture is in all likelihood not a pretty one, which is probably why social media companies have not been particularly forthcoming about their energy usage. For anyone who takes a close look at the media alternatives such as print and broadcast media, to speak of the sustainability of electronic media becomes an oxymoron. In contrast, print is wholly sustainable and broadcast media require considerably less energy than internet based media. Simon Tuff, chairman of the European Broadcasting Union’s Green Broadcasting group said at a recent conference that the BBC reckons the internet consumes three times as much power as traditional terrestrial broadcast transmitters.
Electronic media have an important and irrevocable role for business and society, so they are here to stay. But there needs to be more awareness of their environmental impact, as there needs to be awareness of all media’s environmental impact. IT is estimated to account for some 20 per cent of the world’s energy consumption. We need to start measuring those emissions and quantifying impacts, so that media buyers and consumers can make fully informed media investment decisions.
– Laurel Brunner