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Is going digital in a pandemic as green as we think?

We have heard a lot about the coronavirus pandemic’s green silver lining, as humans’ environmentally destructive activities have been curtailed, and we hope for an environmental bounceback and a shift towards more long-term sustainable practices. However, research by Dr Alexander Taylor (PhD Social Anthropology 2014) suggests that we might be celebrating prematurely.

“There is a pervasive fantasy that the big online push as a result of coronavirus has been great for the environment, but the problem is a lot of this rhetoric overlooks the environmental impact of the digital infrastructure that underpins our remote working and teaching,” Dr Taylor explains.

“We don’t think of the Internet as having a material presence, but the infrastructure that allows our digital communications is physical.”

Dr Taylor's fieldwork took place ‘behind the screens’ of our digital lives, inside the huge data centres where all of the files, photos and videos we store in – and stream – from the ‘cloud’ end up.

Data hall in data centre
The data hall is where data centres stores the servers that contain their clients' data. Photo by A.R.E. Taylor.

Dr Taylor adds: “The metaphors that we use to describe the digiverse such as ‘the cloud’ or, the now archaic-sounding ‘cyberspace’, have social and political power. They shape (and limit) our understandings of our online activity by erasing the physical dimensions of Internet infrastructure. In doing so, they also obscure the environmental impact of the Internet.

“The warehouse-scale data factories in which I conducted my fieldwork require vast amounts of energy to power their computing equipment – which usually comes from non-renewable sources. A considerable amount of this energy is spent on cooling all of this equipment. Computers heat up when they are in use so if you imagine that on an industrial scale you have an idea of the kind of heat data centres generate – which racks up a huge air conditioning bill. It’s been stated that if the cloud was a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world.”

“While the cloud metaphor conceals more than it reveals, it is, in some ways, strangely apt – if we think of it in terms of the clouds of smoke produced by factory chimneys,” Dr Taylor says.

“Although the word ‘cloud’ dematerialises some of this infrastructure, it almost captures the smokiness of this industry.

“Data centres have in fact frequently been described as the ‘factories of the future’.”

Data centre servers
Data centres are securely locked within server cabinets that are arranged in aisles, down which cold air blows to stop them from overheating. Photo by A.R.E. Taylor.

Economics comes into play too. Dr Taylor adds: “Some big tech companies like Apple or eBay do use some renewables to power their data centres, but others – like Zoom (who use facilities operated by Equinix, Amazon Web Services, Oracle Cloud Infrastructure and Microsoft Azure) – don’t, simply because the large capital outlays required to invest in green infrastructure and energy are beyond the reach of most budgets.”

Dr Taylor says that geopolitics is also a consideration. “There is a big push to locate data centres in naturally cold climates, as it is possible to cool facilities without having to spend too much on electricity," he says.

"However, that creates a lot of problems on the ground. Maybe large technology corporations in California are able to green their operations and save money, but locating these data centres in Sweden, Iceland or other Arctic regions can create problems for local communities as their resources (like land, water and electricity) are used for things that they don’t necessarily directly benefit from. Data centres do not generate local employment opportunities as they are run by a relatively small workforce. Wherever the cloud ‘touches the ground’, it creates lots of issues in the local area to navigate and negotiate.”

It is a difficult problem to explore, however, as statistics are hard to come by. “This data is not widely available, with many data centre providers reluctant to release information about their energy consumption,” Dr Taylor explained.

“This makes it challenging for the businesses and institutions that rely on those data centres, like universities, to understand the environmental impact of their online activities.

“A growing body of research is now being carried out on the carbon emissions of cloud computing, but the deficit of publicly available information on the emissions of the cloud make it tricky for an organisation to accurately factor the carbon footprint of their digital infrastructure into their carbon calculations, though it’s definitely worthwhile to try to do so.

“The more organisations start to request this information from their digital infrastructure providers, the more pressure those providers will be under to disclose this data.”

The University of Cambridge has started on this path of calculating its carbon emissions as part of its Carbon Reduction Strategy, which you can read about on the University website. While scope 1 and scope 2 emissions are produced by the University and its direct energy consumption, scope 3 emissions include this type of hard-to-measure indirect emissions from purchased goods and services. As the report states, 'our scope 3 emissions are someone else's scope 1 and 2 emissions', making for complex calculations and targets.

Dr Taylor is currently leading the Black Sky Resilience Project with the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, which brings scholars together with industry leaders, security practitioners and policymakers to explore critical infrastructure protection in relation to emerging global catastrophic risks.

He also lectures on the Media and Communication Programme at the University of Winchester, where he is working on two research projects: 'The Analogue Idyll', which explores cultural practices of disconnecting or ‘unplugging’ from the digital world; and ‘Digital Exhaustion: Techno-aftermaths of the Coronavirus Crisis’, which examines emerging forms of digital fatigue following the rapid increase in use of videoconferencing, edtech platforms and other online technologies during the coronavirus pandemic.

You can read a deeper exploration of Dr Taylor’s research into the environmental impact of the digital shift during the pandemic in his Corona Times article, and follow him on Twitter @alexretaylor.

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