Climate and sustainability

Change the internet's ravenous energy appetite

The internet’s energy hungry and our demands for data are increasing. Fortunately, technology is becoming more energy efficient.

In this very second

Research suggests that right now, in this very second, around 40,000 Google searches are taking place. In the same second around 2.9 million emails and 9,000 tweets were sent, and a massive 86,000 YouTube videos were watched.

That’s a staggering amount of data being produced, disseminated and consumed, all of which requires massive amounts of energy.

And reports indicate that those numbers will only increase. In fact, 90% of world’s online data was created in just the past two years.

If our energy grid continues to be supplied by fossil fuels (like coal and gas), this will continue to result in a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The 2 areas of the internet that consume the most energy are data centres and data networks.

Data centres

These days, thanks to the onset of cloud computing, a large amount of our data lives in massive warehouse facilities known as data centres.

Sometimes referred to as the brains of the internet, data centres are filled with servers, routers and other equipment that collect, store, process and transport the data that satisfies our internet needs. These activities drive up electricity consumption, and a lot of heat within the equipment, which in turn must be cooled.

All of which demands a huge amount of energy. In fact, data centres are estimated to consume around 1% of the world’s electricity usage.

So, what’s the outlook given that global internet users are tipped to swell to 4.8 billion by 2023, and by 2025 the Internet of Things connections will rise to 24.6 billion (up 12 billion since 2019).

Fortunately, data centres are becoming more energy efficient. Improvements to equipment and infrastructure - plus a preference for larger, hyperscale data centres over smaller, less efficient data centres should help keep energy demands for these facilities fairly flat for the next few years, even as the demand for data grows.

Data transmission networks

When we talk about data transmission networks, we’re referring to physical assets such as transmission towers, cables, and all the other information communication technology that allows our devices to connect over the internet.

With demand for data and digital services growing across the globe, and more people using wireless and mobile devices to access the internet, the way data is being transferred across transmission networks is both changing and increasing.

Studies predict that by 2023, 70% of the people on the planet will have mobile connectivity.

In 2019 data networks operations were reported to have consumed around 1% of global electricity use.

However, just like data centres, the technologies we use to build, maintain and operate data networks are also becoming more efficient.

Across the world there’s been between a 10% to 30% efficiency in mobile-access network energy in the last few years. Fixed-line network energy requirements have also reduced considerably since 2000 in developing countries.

So, should we just stop using the internet?

It’s not that simple. For every tonne of greenhouse gas emissions caused by telecommunications and I.T., more than 7 tonnes are removed from elsewhere in the economy. For mobile communications, this factor increases to 10.

How? Think about the vehicle and transport emissions that have been avoided by using video communication and virtual collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic. More broadly, cloud computing has the potential to prevent over 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 in Australia every year.

The internet of things and machine learning also have the potential to do a lot more when it comes to improving industry efficiency and eliminating waste in the utility sector.

But this doesn’t overcome the fact that the internet results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.

You’ll find more on how Telstra’s lowering its emissions here.