When China and India reach the same rate of consumption of goods as the developed world, humanity will need 5 planets to meet the hunger for resources, according to Swedish scientists. That means 5 times the existing trees for paper, 5 times the amount of minerals for steel, 5 times the amounts of fossil fuels for energy, and 5 times the amount of land for agriculture and fish in the sea to feed ‘developed India and China’. With world population expected to double by 2050 the mind reels at humanity’s challenge. So, should we panic? Or put our heads in the sand? Is there cause for hope?
Our system is based on extracting resources from earth, processing them, consuming them and then leaving a pile of garbage behind. If you envision a doubled world population, it does not take a genius to know this is not feasible. The system needs to change, and since I work in IT, that’s where my focus is.
In IT vast amounts of materials and energy are consumed to manufacture stuff. The challenge is designing every piece of equipment in a way that at the end of its life cycle the resources can be recycled. Another challenge is in IT usage. What do cool smart phones, tablets, cloud services, search engines and social media have in common with traditional financial services and Telco providers? All of them are powered by data centers. And according to IDC, data is expected to grow by a factor of 50x to 40 ZettaBytes by 2020. Data centers require large amounts of electricity to cool. Just like your computer has ventilation to cool its innards, likewise data centers need cooling, just on a massive scale. And this requires electricity, usually generated from coal or nuclear power, which then emits carbon, and generally makes a mess of things.
Now let’s look at what is happening in IT-land to address these challenges. There are many standardization programs (Energy Star for energy efficient consumer products, PUE for measuring the energy efficiency of a data center) based on the underlying wisdom “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” (Kelvin – 1824). An example is the iPhone 4 which emits 45kg of CO2 to manufacture, transport, use and recycle. But standards are overlapping, never complete, and prone to endless discussions between competing vendors. So it is a slow and frustrating process. To be fair, nailing down good standards is wildly complicated, and the irony is that getting standards measured right, needs vast amounts of data, which must be stored, must be cooled, and so emits carbon.
So should we despair? Well, good things are happening, green glimmers of hope that change the system. In August 2012, Facebook disclosed its 2011 carbon footprint, energy mix and energy use for the company’s data centers and global offices. The total annual carbon footprint per month of an active Facebook user is 269 grams (carbon equivalent of 3 bananas). With 425 million active users that is a lot of carbon. Facebook at least sets an example with their open book, and FB opens its third largest data center in Lulea, Sweden in 2014, powered by renewable energy. Google also makes great strides in disclosing carbon footprint and they claim their data centers use only 50% of energy compared to other data centers (a Google search accounts for 0.2 grams of CO2-emissions and 10,000 searches equal an 8 km trip in an average automobile, and according to Nielsen, in March 2010 6.38 billion searches were performed with Google in the US, amounting to 1,276 tons of CO2, or roughly a 5 million km long car ride.) Again, this is a question of ‘measurement’ and the challenge of standards’ credibility. Other companies follow their lead, but in my view not enough.
Then there companies like Greenqloud, in Iceland, offering cloud computing services powered by 100% renewable energy resources; Fjord.it, in Norway, offering wholesale computer infrastructure-as-a-service to Telco providers, also powered by renewable energy; or Ecosia.org a green search engine, which offsets its carbon emissions and donates proceeds to save rain forest.
If I then contemplate the chaotic efforts that go into standardizations to measure resource efficiency of all kinds, and combine this with the green shoots like Facebook, Google, Ecosia.org and Fjord.it, I think there is still hope – hope that a young generation will kick the world into green consciousness and design a closed loop system that will lift humanity out of its present predicament. As for me, I just want to look my kids in the eyes when they are grown up, and tell them I was part of the solution, and not part of the problem. If everybody does that within their sphere of influence, we *will* change.