How do big tech's carbon neutral plans stack up?

The 4th industrial revolution is becoming a huge driver of carbon emissions. So how realistic are carbon neutral aims given the growth of digital technology?

A dramatic fall in pollution in regions of the world locked down by coronavirus demonstrates the crucial role digital technology can play in cutting carbon emissions. Though people are incarcerated in their homes, home working via internet means economic activity can still thrive.

One researcher claims that the reduced air pollution created by restricted travel during the lockdown in China may save between 50,000 and 75,000 lives, far more than have died from the virus.

This sheds new light on criticisms from environmentalists blaming the internet for the spiraling use of energy by data centres and the cloud, often for frivolous activities such as viewing cat videos and posting selfies on social media.

The data centre industry argues that the pandemic shows the internet offers a solution to climate change.

"Just imagine this wonderful world where 40 percent of the population that were commuting to offices now work from home on a regular basis. Think of the amount of carbon and NOx emissions from cars and trains that are going to be lowered as a result of people just staying at home and working remotely. None of that would be possible without data centres. The cloud is more than paying for itself in energy efficiency and lower pollution," says Jack Bedell-Pearce, Chief Executive of co-location data centre operator 4D Data Centres.

Even so, energy consumption by the world's 500 hyperscale data centres and the thousands of smaller ones dotted around the globe which power the internet is a major contributor to global warming. Carbon emissions from the internet and streaming services account for as much carbon pollution as air travel - some 4 per cent of total global carbon emissions, according to one study. Emissions related to the internet have soared from 2.5% of the total in 2013 as online video and streaming data have gobbled up energy.   

But Beddell-Pearce points to great improvements in the energy efficiency of data centres, particularly innovations in cooling technology. 

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