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Behind the Screens: The True Costs of Internet Access

By: 
Katie Singer

Inside view of a data center. Photo credit: https://secure.fatcow.com/images/data-center-photos/new/SecureWebServer.jpg

Behind the Screens: The True Costs of Internet Access

by Katie Singer

Several years ago, I started wondering about the Internet's energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste and worker hazards. Nearly every day since then, I've learned something else about the true costs behind our screens, about what it really takes to send an email or stream a video.

While the Internet's footprint becomes visible, so do other questions: Is Internet use within our ecological means? What policies would lead to reduction in the Internet's energy use and ecological impacts? Without Internet access, how can anyone keep a job or go to school or maintain contact with family? How/can we reduce our Internet footprint when, arguably, access to it is a necessity?

In 2018, Soumya Dutta gave a broader context to these questions. Co-founder of India Climate Justice, he explained that according to the World Bank, the average Indian consumes about 630 kilograms of oil equivalent (KGoe) per year. The average Bangladeshi consumes less than 300 KGoe. The average U.S. American annually consumes over 6,000 KGoe. "To provide every global citizen with a decent opportunity for a healthy life--starting with vitally needed basic infrastructure such as clean water and toilets," Mr. Dutta told me, "some of the poorest countries with the lowest emissions might actually need to increase their per capita energy consumption. Then, to reduce sufficiently the burden that humans impose on natural ecosystems, wealthier nations that consume excessive amounts will need to reduce their consumption of energy and water by at least 70 percent,[1] and completely eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions."[2]

I wondered how the Internet's impact on natural ecosystems, workers and communities could become visible to more users.

The Internet's main energy guzzlers

The Internet is the largest thing that humanity has built,[3] and it continues to expand. According to consultants from Huawei, the Chinese corporation that has contracted to deploy fifth generation (5G) wireless infrastructure for Canada and UK, by 2030, info-communications-technologies could consume 51% of total global electricity use and emit 23% of total greenhouse gases.[4] A 2016 study from the Semiconductor Industry reports that by 2040, computers will require more electricity than the entire world can generate.[5]

To assess the Internet's energy consumption, we've got to consider the energy used by manufacturing, operating and disposing of individual devices and by the infrastructure that makes our devices work. Here are the Internet's main energy guzzlers:

Embodied energy. This is the energy used to design an electronic device, typically with energy-intensive computer modeling; to mine, wash and transport its raw ores to smelters and refineries; to transport refined materials and chemicals to assembly plants; then to assemble, box and ship each item to its end-user. Eighty-one percent of the energy used by a laptop from its design to its disposal is embodied.[6] Shipping raw and refined materials to their next station is part of a computer's embodied energy. If cargo shipping were a country, it would rank sixth in greenhouse gas emissions.[7]

Access networks. Sending a text, streaming a video, Google searches, social media posts (and all other online activities) depend on access networks--world-wide infrastructure for cellular and Internet services. Access networks can include fiber optics cables, cell towers (masts), copper wires, antennas, radio transmitters, routers, battery-backup, satellites and more.[8] It's worth noting that wireless access consumes ten times as much energy as wired;[9] and every infrastructure part holds embodied energy.

Data storage centers. Run by governments, businesses, universities and hospitals, some data storage centers are large enough to be visible from outer space. They're packed with cooling systems and computers (containing embodied energy). The servers store websites, videos, software programs, social media posts, medical records, surveillance data, GPS, data collected by smart utility meters, etc. Data centers account for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.[10]

Automated processes. These include advertising bots; automatic updates and backups for apps, video games, websites and operating systems; automated systems like smart meters that transmit electricity (or water or gas) usage to a data collector and then to the utility.

Aerial view of the U.S. National Security Administration's Utah Data Center. Photo credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Embodied in every computer

One smartphone contains 1000+ different substances.[11] We're talking copper, coltan, fluorinated greenhouse gases (coating for screens), gold, graphite, lithium, n-hexane, quartz, tin and so much more. Briefly, let's review a few of these substances.

Each smartphone includes millions of transistors made from silicon. To get 98% pure, metallurgical-grade silicon, quartz, a pure carbon and slow-burning wood are transported to a smelter kept at 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. The metallurgical-grade silicon is then transported to a refinery kept at about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit for a vapor deposition process. It takes several more energy-intensive steps to generate electronic-grade silicon with only one impurity part per billion.[12, 13]

Manufacturers now make 1000 times more transistors than farmers grow grains of wheat and rice combined.[14]

Lithium is a reactive, light, alkaline metal used in mobile batteries. Filtering each ton of lithium consumes about 500,000 gallons of water, straining local farming, cooking and cleaning efforts. Chemicals like hydrochloric acid, used to refine lithium, can leak into waterways, polluting soil and local well and impacting fish as far as 150 miles downstream.[15]

Ashlee Vance explores lithium mining in Chile's Atacama Desert. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50rXYrFCQMw

Tiny copper traces in a computer's circuit board (each connected to a silicon chip) serve as conductors for the circuit board's signals. Copper wiring connects coils, switches and other components to form the complete circuit board. For every kilogram of copper mined, at least 210 kilograms of waste are generated.[16]

Columbite tantalite, commonly called coltan, makes a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. Refined coltan has been used in nearly every mobile device. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) holds 64% of the world's coltan. Mining for coltan in DRC (wherein militias control the mining and foreign investors' money) has contributed to mass rapes and more loss of life than any other single situation since World War II.[17, 18]

Dr. Denis Mukwege won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work repairing the vaginas of women brutally raped over coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Denis_Mukwege_2018.jpg

The global super-factory behind every email

Indeed, every online activity (every video stream, video conference, email, text, Zoom call, Google search, GPS search, social media post, "smart" meter data collection, marketing data collection, medical or financial or educational record accessed and transferred, "smart" "energy saving" Internet-of-Things-connected refrigerator messaging its owner to buy more orange juice, etc.) engages internationally-connected network of cell sites and data storage centers that consume huge amounts of greenhouse gas-emitting electricity. Every device and router starts with extraction and smelting of ores: manufacturing every device depends on refineries, CO2-emitting power plants, nuclear plants, chemical plants, steel mills, metal smelters, wood (for smelters) and factories of all kinds. Each energy guzzling, toxic waste and greenhouse-gas emitting operation inter-connects by networks of power lines, natural gas lines, cargo ships, trains, trucks, airplanes, shipping lanes, railways, highways, airports, telecom access networks and data storage centers to form one gigantic global super-factory.

A brief history of telecommunications policy

What do telecom policies say about the Internet's environmental impacts? (I know U.S. policies best, but they are similar in other countries.) In 1934, the newly established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), defined "harmful interference" as anything that interferes with existing radio and TV broadcasts. This definition now includes cellular and Internet services. It has never included biological harm. I believe that the FCC aimed to encourage unfettered invention. We who have refrigerators, washing machines, Internet access (and so much more) benefit from that.

Section 704 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act prohibits municipalities from allowing environmental or health concerns to interfere with the placement of a cellular antenna as long as its electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emissions comply with FCC limits.

Even though they're largely unknown, these regulations send the public a clear message: we value technology more than nature or public health. I am aware of no policy that limits Internet growth for any environmental reason.

Meanwhile, many of us welcome newer devices' increased efficiency and lower cost. Alas. As the British economist William Jevons explained in his 1865 book, The Coal Question, increased efficiency actually increases use of raw materials and energy: making ten million energy-efficient mobile phones (or electric vehicles or anything) demands more natural resources. Period.

The Internet continues to grow

The Internet is now expanding to become the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT provides machine-to-machine communication and increases speed. A chipped diaper can message your smartphone that your baby's diaper needs changing. The IoT supports telemedicine, video conferencing for business and education, traffic updates for GPS-connected vehicles, speedier video downloads, and adjusting your thermostat while you're away from home.

To support the IoT's demand for increased data and speed, the telecom industry has begun deploying 5G (fifth generation wireless infrastructure). 5G will add to--not replace--current wireless infrastructure. 5G's extremely short waves can carry much more data than 4G. However, these waves cannot travel far. Antennas that transmit their signals therefore must be densely deployed. In urban areas, this will mean about one cell site (typically on a public right-of-way such as a utility pole) for every three to ten households.[19] In rural areas, each household may need a dedicated cell site.[20]

In the U.S., federal and state legislation (passed since 2016) has eliminated local authority over telecom facilities, including zoning requirements like neighborhood notification and public hearings. This legislation also restricts the fees (typically used for general funds) that a municipality can charge telecom corporations for leasing its PROWs.

To sustain the Internet and our society

To sustain the Internet and our society, we'll need to reduce our overall consumption of energy and our extraction of rare earths.[21]

COVID19's stay-at-home orders have increased video streaming and conferencing. If users knew that downloading a video uses more data (and thereby takes more energy) than downloading a photo, that transmitting a photo uses more energy than transmitting a text, that Zoom calls use more energy than plain talk, would we shift to plain talk?

Could every municipality, manufacturer, service provider, school and household immediately begin reducing Internet use by three percent every month? Even in combination, this will not come close to reducing consumption by 70%, as Soumya Dutta advises. Still, it would move us toward living within our means. Here are other suggestions:

All Internet Users: Since wireless tech uses ten times as much energy as wired, consider mobility a luxury. Get wired phone and Internet access. Pressure manufacturers to build repairable, upgradable, modular electronics. Wait at least four years to upgrade.

Communities: Provide Internet cafes for shared computers. Offer fix-it clinics staffed by retirees and student-internet to extend equipment life.

Legislators: Repeat legislation that restricts local authority over telecom facilities. Support copper wiring to every premises. Enact right-to-repair legislation. Ban "mining" of digital currencies like Bitcoin (awarded by computers solving complex math problems). In 2018, Digiconomist calculated that bitcoin's CO2 emissions were 20 million metric tons  per year.[22] For comparison, annually, 6.8 million cars emit about 7.7 million tons of CO2 while we have roughly one billion passenger vehicles on the road, globally.)

Utilities: Replace digital, transmitting "smart" meters with electro-mechanical utility meters.

Businesses and Schools: With volume purchases, insist on verification of workers' and environmental protections at mines and assembly plants.

Web Designers: Minimize videos, pop-ups and slide shows: they consume lots of energy and emit lots of CO2. Link or embed videos. Do not re-post them.

Parents and Schools: Do not allow children to use electronics at least until reading, writing and math are mastered on paper. Follow Shedong, China schools' directive: no more than 15 minutes per session with electronics, and no more than one hour of total, daily electronic use. Teach skills like growing and cooking food, composting, building and repairing mechanical tools. Visit the Campaign to Reduce Our Internet Footprint (www.ourweb.tech/campaign); and invite each student to research one substance in a smartphone, and share their research with classmates.

Endnotes

1. Luers, Amy L., M. Mastrandrea, et al., "How to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change: A Target for U.S. Emissions Reductions," Union of Concerned Scientists, 2007.

2. Jarvensivu, Paavo, T. Toivanen, et al., "Governance of Economic Transition," United Nation's 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report.

3. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/12/there-are-no-clean-clouds/420744/

4. Andrae, Anders S. G. and Tomas Edler, "On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030," Challenges, 30 April 2015.

5. Ganz, J. and D. Reinsel, "The digital universe by 2020: Big data, bigger digital shadows, and biggest growth in the far east," IDC iView: IDC Analyze the Future, 2007:1-16, 2012.

6. https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

7. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/if-shipping-were-a-country-it-would-be-the-world-s-sixth-biggest-greenhouse-gas-emitter

8. CEET, Bell Labs and U. of Melbourne, "The Power of Wireless Cloud: An analysis of the energy consumption of wireless cloud," 2013.

9. Baliga, Jayant, et al, "Energy Consumption in Wired and Wireless Access Networks," IEEE Communications, June, 2011.

10. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/25/server-data-centre-emissions-air-travel-web-google-facebook-greenhouse-gas

11. Needhidasan, S., et al., "Electronic waste--an emerging threat to the environment of urban India," J. Environ Health Sci. Eng., Jan. 20, 2014; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3908467.

12. Kato, Kazuhiko et al., "Energy Pay-back Time and Life-cycle CO2 Emission of Residential PV Power System with Silicon PV Module," Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, Wiley & Sons, 1998.

13. Troszak, Thomas, "Why Do We Burn Coal and Trees for Solar Panels?" https:www.researchgate.net/publication/335083312_Why_do_we_burn_coal_and...

14. Mills, Mark P., "Energy and the Information Infrastructure Part 3: The Digital 'Engines of Innovation' & Jevons' Delicious Paradox," Dec. 11, 2018, Real Clear Energy.

15. Katwala, Amit, "The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction," 8.5.18; https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact

16. Goonan, Thomas G., "Flows of selected materials associated with world copper melting," U.S. Geological Survey, Open File Report, 2004-139t.

17. Eichstaedt, Peter, Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World's Deadliest Place, Lawrence Hill Books, 2011.

18. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-conflict-minerals-funded-a-war-that-killed-millions/

19. https://www.cio.com/article/3117705/cellular-networks-5g-could-require-cell-towers-on-every-street-corner.html

20. Thompson, Larry and W. Vande Stadt, "5G is Not the Answer for Rural Broadband," Broadband Communities, March 2017. https://spectrum.ieee.org/video/telecom/wireless/everything-you-need-to-know-about-5g

21. http://climatenewsnetwork.net/Internet-energy-impacts-on-climate

22. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/1/18/16901422/bitcoin-price-crash-energy-emissions

KATIE SINGER spoke about the Internet's footprint at the United Nations' 2018 Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation. Her books include An Electronic Silent Spring (about e-techs' health and environmental impacts, available in Korean), Honoring Our Cycles: A Natural Family Planning Workbook and The Wholeness of a Broken Heart: a novel. A consultant with the EMR Policy Institute, she speaks internationally. Visit electronicsilentspring.com and ourweb.tech.