Social media and search engines contribute to global warming

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Facebook on screens
Computer screens display the Facebook sign-in screen in this photo illustration taken in Golden, Colorado July 28, 2015. Facebook, Inc. is to announce its second-quarter earnings July 29, 2015. Reuters/Rick Wilking

Scientists say greenhouse gas emissions have been growing due to the burning of fossil fuels, but a new report shows that the growing demand for digital services, such as social media, are also factors that contribute to global warming. Google and Facebook datacentre web servers were found to have made up two percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Datacentres are rooms with servers that require huge amounts of energy to run and support websites. Apart from the energy needed to run the servers, energy is also needed to keep datacentres, which generate a lot of heat, cool.

To date, the majority of the 1,766,014 tonnes of carbon dioxide, or CO2, of Google’s carbon footprint has come from datacentres. Despite the improvements in the IT efficiency of the online industry and its capability to use less power, the “efficiency gains are being eaten up by demand”, which causes datacentres to use more energy and emit more CO2, says Sophia Flucker, director at Operational Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that advises datacentres on using energy.

However, the online industry claims that it could separate economic growth and emissions through improvements in energy efficiency and technology. The Guardian reports that the industry could keep growing while reducing its contributions to global emissions  in 2030.

Google claims that each search on its site only generates 0.2g of carbon, versus previous claims that individual searches produce CO2 as much as boiling water for a cup of coffee (7g). Figures also show that watching YouTube videos is warming the planet by generating 1g of carbon for every 10 minutes of viewing, while a single user checking Gmail for a year adds about 1.2kg.

Facebook has also reported that its datacentres only generate about 269g of CO2 for a year, similar to the amount that a cup of coffee produces.

Greenpeace, the organisation that has reported on the environmental performance of datacentres for several years, suggests that the key to climate change could be based on how the industry will provide power for its datacentres.  

“If they’re built in the right way, it could be a great story and help the transition [to renewable energy],” said Gary Cook, senior IT analyst at Greenpeace, in the Guardian report. But if the datacentres were built “the wrong way,” the process would worsen climate change, and increase the independence of people on other sources of energy that could lead them to move away to address climate change.

Datacentres could either be a major source of emissions or it could prompt the use of clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, Cook added. However, datacentres are also insufficient on its own, looking at the growth in demand and the digital world, energy efficiency will slow the increase of emissions, but will still keep “going to the moon,” he stated.

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