Why going digital in pandemic times might not be as green as you think

Amidst the unfolding horror of the coronavirus pandemic, the industrial and economic shutdown has ostensibly provided us with an eye-opening glimpse of what the world might look like without fossil fuels.

In a classic post-apocalyptic trope, wildlife has been photographed supposedly returning to the Venice lagoon, leading to proclamations that “nature is taking back Venice”. Restrictions on travel have led to global reductions in transportation emissions. As urban air quality levels improve, the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease associated with air pollution have decreased. It has been suggested that this fall in pollution has allegedly saved more lives than those lost due to Covid-19.

Satellite images released by the European Space Agency have played a leading role in the visual economy of the “nature is healing” narrative, visualising the decreasing carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions across China, northern Italy and elsewhere.

Yet there is a glaring blind spot in the middle of these optimistic visions of ecological rebalancing: the potentially enormous carbon footprint resulting from the global surge in online activity prompted by the lockdowns and other Covid-19 containment measures.

During the coronavirus crisis, many of us are relying, more so than ever before, on digital infrastructure. Internet service providers have seen record demand. When Italy went into lockdown, SuperNap (a data centre provider in the north of Italy) saw a 15% increase in power consumption and internet usage. Online communications traffic has rapidly increased as people work from home and connect to friends and family via Skype, Facetime and social media.

Business meetings have migrated online and universities have switched to online teaching, making heavy use of teleconferencing tools and e-learning platforms. DE-CIX’s Frankfurt facility, the world’s largest internet exchange, has seen average data traffic increase by 10% with video calling rising by 50%.

Microsoft noted that its video meetings platform, Teams, has seen an increase of 12 million users. Zoom has experienced unprecedented demand during the pandemic, jumping from 10 million daily users in December 2019 to more than 200 million daily users in March 2020.

As those in self-isolation and quarantine seek entertainment and distraction from the drudgery of life in lockdown, demand for streaming services has also skyrocketed, putting mounting pressure on digital infrastructure. Amidst dramatic spikes in data use, Netflix and YouTube have had to reduce their video quality in attempts to ensure the stability of internet services.

While we often speak of “cloud” computing, these digital services are delivered from and dependent upon a distinctly un-cloudlike network of globally distributed data centres.

These large warehouse-scale facilities store and process the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data that are produced on a daily basis. They also deliver the applications, software programs and IT systems that underpin everyday life in digital societies. When we post on social media, read the news online, send emails, stream films, order our supermarket shopping or make a video call, data centres are involved.

These digital activities have rapidly increased in the current climate. Due to the services that data centres enable, they have been recognised as “essential infrastructure” by a number of authorities tasked with implementing lockdown measures. With schools and workplaces closed, data centre services have enabled for a valuable degree of business and societal continuity.

Similarly, data infrastructure staff are now considered key workers. While popular images and imaginaries of data centres often picture these buildings as depopulated, automated spaces, they are, for the most part, run by permanent teams of staff who maintain and manage the computing equipment, with the aim of ensuring their facilities remain online.

In order to safeguard employee health during the coronavirus crisis, data centres have limited visitors, and increased their food and water supplies in case their operations staff have to remain on site for longer periods of time, amidst promises to guarantee 100% uptime.

The environmental impact of the data centre industry has been widely documented, even if public awareness of this is still limited. In a political and economic context that demands constant and uninterrupted connectivity (even before the pandemic), data centres consume huge amounts of electricity to keep their IT equipment running and their services permanently online.

A single data centre can use as much electricity as a medium-sized town. The vast majority of these facilities are powered by non-renewable energy sources. Many of these buildings also rely on 24/7 all-year-round air conditioning to prevent this equipment from overheating, which consumes yet more electricity. These levels of service availability are further achieved with an extensive array of fossil-fuelled backup infrastructure. Data centres often use banks of backup diesel generators that wait on standby in case of a power failure.

This year, 3.5% of global emissions are expected to be produced by the data centre industry, which surpasses aviation and shipping industries. Projections estimate that by 2025, one fifth of the planet’s electricity will be consumed by data centres, amounting to 14% of global emissions in 2040.

This sector has also been identified as a major contributor to air pollution and criticised for violating clean air regulations. In 2012, journalist James Glanz reported that, in Silicon Valley, many of these facilities were included on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters. According to a widely cited Greenpeace quote, if the “cloud” was a country,  its electricity demand would rank fifth in the world.

One of the biggest myths of the digital age is that of the “environmentally-friendly internet”. We imagine the internet as a virtual “cyberspace” or ethereal “cloud” that is somehow detached from the ecologies, materialities and geopolitics of the physical world.

These metaphors rhetorically erase any sense of physical infrastructure and, by extension, of the environmental implications of internet usage. Corporations, banks and governments extol the virtues of going “paperless” and increasingly encourage their customers to switch to online communications as an eco-friendly alternative to the paper and petrol costs of snail mail.

But this green rhetoric omits the excessive energy consumption and environmental destruction that these digital services rely upon. Perhaps the greatest trick the big tech companies ever pulled was convincing the world that digital infrastructure does not physically exist.

This is important to bear in mind before we start celebrating the “return of nature”, or commit to more permanent futures of post-pandemic remote working based on the perception that digital working is better for the environment. For many organisations, the imperative to work remotely from home has gradually shifted status from an unwelcome disruption to a valuable “opportunity” (in the market-orientated language of neoliberalism) to trial and weigh up the costs and benefits of an online workforce vs. an offline one.

In higher education, in particular, as teaching has moved online, this global e-learning experiment has led some universities to develop tentative plans to embed online teaching into the curriculum on a more permanent basis. Remote workers could provide cheap labour, with e-learning platforms facilitating workforce reductions through digital outsourcing.

This would continue and accelerate an employment practice associated with neoliberal reforms across higher education, which have given rise to an ever-growing academic precariat. While remote working will be implemented with the aim of cutting costs, in many cases it will be promoted under the guise of greening the university.

Yet claims that remote working might offer a greener way of life and calls for institutions to “use coronavirus to rethink environmental strategies” are often based on the myth of digital immateriality. Suggestions that the pandemic “could be a chance for universities to go green” potentially pave the way for a damaging and misguided partnership between neoliberal staffing cuts and university sustainability strategies.

The climate emergency is rarely factored into institutional decision-making when it comes to sourcing IT providers, and universities often overlook the carbon footprint of their IT infrastructure when accounting for their carbon costs.

Low-carbon data centres do exist, so fossil-free futures for digital infrastructure are a possibility. However, at the moment, the vast majority of data centre providers lack incentives to green their facilities, or cannot afford the large capital outlays that this process often involves.

New commitments to online teaching may thus clash with an institution’s sustainability agenda. Similarly, amidst the ongoing virtualisation of academic sociality, as conferences and other colloquia are digitally delivered, we must also be cautious not to promote online communications as de facto environmentally progressive solutions.

This is not to downplay the potential benefits of web-conferencing, both as a means for a more inclusive academy and as a means of reducing the environmental damage wrought by jet-fuelled conferencing and knowledge-production practices.

Nor is it to suggest that the carbon footprint of remote working necessarily rivals that of fossil-fuelled commuting and office energy consumption (those carbon calculations depend on our individual work situations).

The point is that we have to check the now normative assumption that the digitisation or virtualisation of human activities is by default the greener solution. The answer to more sustainable futures of work is not as simple as switching from the office to the home and conferences are not carbon-neutral simply because they take place online.

Proclamations that the pandemic is good news for climate change persistently overlook the environmental impact of our remote working, web-conferencing and social media usage. Indeed, the global north is apparently still on track to release 95% of the carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year.

The coronavirus crisis may have momentarily improved global air quality by reducing road and air traffic, but with surging levels of data traffic, the actual carbon footprint of all our digital activity during lockdown remains to be seen.

A.R.E. Taylor is a social anthropologist based at the University of Cambridge and the University of Winchester. His research focuses on imaginaries of digital collapse and on the material and temporal dimensions of data storage and security. He is a founding member of the Social Studies of Outer Space (SSOS) Network and is an Editorial Assistant for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. He is also a founder of the Black Sky Resilience Group, a cross-disciplinary network of researchers exploring societal and infrastructure resilience in relation to global catastrophic risks. His Twitter is @alexretaylor

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times’ editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

Show Comments