Working from home might help many of us stay safer from COVID-19, but all the increased electricity generation that has resulted from it is not helping the environment.
Working from home, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do it, can help keep us safe from COVID-19, because it decreases our exposure to those outside of our immediate “quarantine pods.” However, as we all do our office and school work online and pass the time with our streaming and gaming devices, there is a down side, because most of our devices rely on the internet, and as a result, they have a growing environmental impact.
Researchers out of Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a hard look at the land, carbon and water footprints associated with global internet infrastructure. Their research found that our growing reliance on the internet is increasing our carbon, land and water footprints. The study estimated the impacts of energy consumption from almost 20 major internet platforms in the United States, Germany, Brazil, China, Mexico and other countries, and what they found was not encouraging.
“The environmental costs of adopting new technologies and habits are often recognized too late, typically when changing the adopted technologies and behavioral norms is difficult. A similar story may unfold if society continues to blindly transition to an unregulated and environmentally unaudited digital world…”Renee Obringer, et. al., Yale University
Our global internet infrastructure relies on massive data centers that are filled with servers that drive our data storage and use. Data centers are responsible for a staggering 1 percent of the world’s electricity consumption (this is more than some smaller countries use), yet, until now, there hasn’t been a deep dive into how that all that energy use is impacting our land and carbon footprints, and – the thing that is near and dear to our hearts – our water use.
As we’ve noted in the past, our water footprints can be significantly larger when our electricity is generated by thermoelectric power plants. This is because thermoelectric power primarily uses water – massive amounts of water, in fact – for cooling. The more power that is produced, the more cooling water required. This is one reason why some thermoelectric power producers have switched to air-cooled systems, to drastically decrease their need for cooling water supplies.
The researchers say members of the public can do their part too, suggesting that, for those engaged in video conference calls, simply turning off the camera and reducing quality settings (or resolution) could collectively result in significant reductions in energy and water use. To find more ways to save energy, which also saves water, check out our water saving tips.