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. 

He may have a point. While the computing output from data centres increased 600% between 2010 and 2018, their energy consumption rose just 6% over that time according to research recently published in the journal Science. This is due to significant improvements in energy efficiency as businesses have migrated data from in-house server racks cooled inefficiently in offices to the hyper-efficient mammoth data centres of the cloud. 

However, the mushrooming computing power of the past decade may be small bier compared with what lies ahead. With 5G, AI, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles and the 4th industrial revolution poised to transform the global economy, the energy consumption of data centres stands to expand exponentially. The question is whether increased energy efficiency can keep up with these developments and prevent runaway energy use and carbon emissions from data centres.

Some think not. Mike Berners-Lee, a professor at Lancaster University's Environment Centre, argues that increasing energy efficiency invariably leads to greater use of energy and an overall increase in carbon emissions. This is known as the Jevons Paradox, after 19th century economist William Jevons who sought to solve the problem of Britain's dwindling coal stocks which were being used up. He argued that increasing the efficiency of coal burning was no solution since it made it a more profitable economic activity, encouraging more firms to engage in coal-based activities and thus increasing overall use of coal. This is also called the "rebound effect".

As Berners-Lee explains: "So we become millions of times more efficient with our data storage, transmission and processing than we were in the days of filing cabinets and letters. But what's happened to the carbon footprint of our data storage and transmission? Well, it's gone up, not down."

The only solution he sees is for data centres and device manufacturing to shift to the use of renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. Technology companies are largely following this line of reasoning. Berners-Lee has consulted with UK telecoms operator BT, which took the transformative decision in 2017 to eradicate not only its own carbon emissions but those of its entire supply chain. BT was followed by Microsoft which last year committed to making itself and its entire supply chain "carbon negative" by 2030, removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits. And by 2050, it has pledged to remove the equivalent of all the carbon it has ever produced since it was founded in 1975. Meanwhile, Google claims to be the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world and announced in 2017 that all its operations had shifted to 100% renewable energy. Amazon is a laggard in sustainability and has come under pressure from staff to up its game. It is aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

"Microsoft and BT have shown that it's possible to raise the bar. You follow or get left behind," says Berners-Lee.

But Elizabeth Jardim, senior corporate campaigner at Greenpeace USA, is critical of Microsoft for its links to fossil fuel companies. "There is a big hole in Microsoft's plan," she says. Among all of the cloud companies, Microsoft has been the most aggressive in doing business with the fossil fuel sector. "This is directly opposed to their goals of reducing their emissions. I think that they should end those contracts," she says.

Jardim acknowledges that tech companies were among the first big corporations to commit to renewable energy between 2012 and 2014 and they are now putting deadlines on eliminating their carbon footprints. Given this, she believes tech companies should become stronger advocates against climate change. Whether in the state of Virginia - with the world's largest concentration of data centres - or in China, Taiwan and South Korea where device and chip manufacturing take place, tech companies must promote renewable energy.

Overall, Jardim is optimistic that the tech industry will eliminate carbon emissions and that a clean internet will enable a more sustainable future. The lessons of the coronavirus pandemic are clear.

"Right now there is uncertainty and fear, but I have a sense that people who work at these tech companies will want renewable power coming out of this crisis," she says. In truth, it will require a combination of renewable energy plus energy efficiency for digital technology to become the driver of a clean new world. But one of the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic may be that the internet holds the key to a sustainable future.