Though we think of the internet as mostly virtual, a non-physical space of zero-cost interactions, its impact on the environment is very much real.
The staggering energy consumption of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum has taken the news by storm in recent months, and for good reason. Annually, Bitcoin transactions - despite all the hype, still rather low in volume - already consume more energy than Ireland, and could even overtake the United States in the not too distant future. But we shouldn’t forget the rest of the internet’s environmental footprint either. Data centres now make up almost three per cent of European energy consumption. Globally we generate nearly 50 million tonnes of e-waste a year, a number expected to skyrocket as more people move online and the promised Internet of Things revolution kicks into gear.
The unmitigated growth of the internet comes not only with serious environmental ramifications, the scarcity of the finite resources it relies on also introduces significant political risk.
If 2017 was the year we started to worry about the impact of the internet on our democracies, 2018 will be the year we start to care about its impact on the planet.
“Smart” saltshakers, Wi-Fi water bottles, the infamous Snapchat glasses and Alexa; more and more of the products we use in our daily lives are going online, regardless of whether we need them to. This insatiable thirst for smart tech shows the dark side of Moore’s Law: the exponential growth in processing power has made it incredibly cheap to connect even the most disposable of items to the internet. Indeed, Gartner estimates that by 2020 the global number of connected ‘things’ will reach 21 billion. This explosive growth in internet devices is often sold to us as a good thing: ‘smart’ is more efficient and helps us save energy. But what we often forget when we install that smart thermostat is that the production processes behind these products have a significant carbon footprint and rely on the use of finite, harmful and difficult-to-recycle resources.
As tech devices have grown more sophisticated, the number of different components used in their manufacturing has increased too. Where an average electric device 30 years ago only used about 11 different chemical elements, a smartphone today contains upwards of 63 - often in miniscule amounts. With global demand for these often scarce resources moving into somewhat of a frenzy, prices have skyrocketed over recent months.
Supplies of lithium, a key component in electric car and smartphone batteries, are limited and hard to obtain. An arms race fuelled by Chinese demand has been accelerating as more countries and companies scramble to buy up lithium mines around the world to secure future access. Rare earth metals (RAMs), used for anything from computer screens to lasers are incredibly hazardous and difficult to mine; which is why few countries allow it within their own borders. China, capitalising on this gap in the market, has come to control upwards of 95 per cent of the rare earths market, and has shown itself willing to weaponise this dominance. In 2011, for example, the country temporarily suspended RAM sales to Japan because of a territorial dispute - a disaster for the latter’s vibrant electronics industry.
The trade in cobalt, another essential but scarce element needed in battery tech, is centred around the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 63 per cent of global supplies originating from the war-torn country. Beyond the ethical considerations - cobalt is usually extracted by underage workers through a toxic mining process - it is also not very sustainable in the long run to rely on such a volatile supply chain.
Internet-enabled devices are not only costly for the environment to produce, they also use a lot of energy. According to some estimates, the global infrastructure powering the internet already consumes about 15 per cent of global electricity, something we don’t often think about.
The enormous energy use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin is particularly worrying. Bitcoin’s underpinning blockchain infrastructure relies on private ‘miners’, who provide the computing power needed to keep the system running. Miners compete with each other by trying to solve complex cryptographic puzzles, with the first to find the correct solution receiving a Bitcoin reward (currently 12.5BTC, at time of writing worth an estimated $185,000). The more computing power a miner has, the higher their chances of winning. Adding more electricity-gobbling computers becomes more attractive as the price of Bitcoin continues to increase and the value of rewards thus go up. This model is unsustainable: if current growth persists, Bitcoin would require more energy than is currently produced worldwide by 2020.
There is a growing movement seeking to address the internet’s environmental footprint and resource dependency. Repair cafes, which help people fix their broken electronics, are mushrooming up across the UK. Dutch startup Fairphone’s smartphones are built using only ethically-mined and recycled materials, and allow for individual bits of the phone to be upgraded or repaired. Projects like HARVEST and HydroMiner look to make cryptocurrencies more environmentally friendly.
Also the private sector is starting to wake up to these issues. Google, Facebook and other tech giants have all committed to turning their data centres carbon neutral over the next couple of years. And while tech elites get much attention for their grandiose plans for space and deep-sea mining to help satisfy our ever growing thirst for tech, in the background a growing number of businesses are also beginning to invest in making e-waste recycling more efficient: less sexy, but oh so important.
Though these developments are meaningful, they are just the start.
In recent months, we have seen a growing media backlash against the wastefulness of cryptocurrencies. As this coverage extends its scope to the environmental impacts of less-highlighted areas of the internet, I expect (and hope) that the general public will start to demand cleaner alternatives and become more conscious about their own levels of internet consumption: do we really need to change our phone every year?
As governments move towards a circular economy for goods, more aggressive steps towards a digital circular economy will logically follow suit, particularly now that reusing what we already have becomes a matter of national sovereignty. Bitcoin mining could be restricted (China and others have already started to do this). Non-recyclable, disposable devices could be heavily taxed or even banned altogether.
Though many areas of growth on the internet are exponential in nature, from computing power to the generation of information to knowledge networks, the planet’s resources underpinning its physical infrastructure are not. Radically transforming every layer of our critical infrastructure - from the ‘sensor-ing’ up of our streets to smart grids - based on an unrealistic model of growth would be short-sighted. Particularly if a small number of actors have the ability to close off the resource tap, instantly turning our smart cities dumb again.
In 2018 we will finally wake up to these limitations.
Illustration: Peter Grundy