Tech Cynic: IT's role in the new climate change debate

Watch a lot of streaming video? Then you're killing the planet... possibly.

I'm writing this article less than a mile from where Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is giving a speech today to people in Berlin. Climate change is a contentious subject and I'm not going to take a position on it in this article, lest the competing streams of invective in the comments section overload IDG's servers. Instead, let's take a look at technology's role in the climate change debate.

Late in 2017 it was reported that the total energy consumption of cryptocurrency mining around the world, the bulk of which was accounted for by Bitcoin, was equivalent to the energy consumption of all of Ireland. This brought back memories of a dubious claim in 2009 that each and every Google search query consumed the equivalent amount of energy to boiling half a kettle of water.

Even with the best of intentions - i.e. no political agenda - it is extremely difficult to accurately analyse power consumption for such complex tasks. The systems involved are neither closed nor clearly defined. Google's servers, for example, do a lot more than provide search results, so what proportion of their data centres' power consumption can be fairly attributed to search? Do you include data-collection costs, ISP costs, the energy cost of transferring search results to the end-user's device? Do you include the power consumption of that device? The energy consumed by Google's employees travelling to work, heating their offices, the energy footprint of supplying their lunches? The fuel consumed by Larry Page's yacht, assuming he has one?

What about what might be termed the energy opportunity cost: if this energy weren't being used in this way, would it be put to a different, perhaps more damaging use? Does a timely response to a search query lead to greater ongoing energy consumption, such as when searching for cheap flights to Dubai, or less, such as when searching for the most efficient home insulation materials? Does cryptocurrency mining translate to a net reduction in the home heating costs of those doing the mining?

Nobody knows for sure and nobody can know, not without modelling the entirety of human behaviour in a perfectly accurate simulation. So, these energy usage claims can never be more than a rough finger-in-the-air figure. Even so, they're useful in that they encourage some people to think about their energy usage, which can hardly be a bad thing on a planet that, at least in practical human terms, has a finite supply of accessible energy reserves.

The most recent statistic, however, is both more amusing and more thought-provoking. According to The Shift Project's 'Climate crisis: The unsustainable use of online video' [PDF], the energy use associated with online pornography - which means pretty much all pornography, as the days of furtive purchases in newsagents are long gone - is of the same magnitude as the energy consumption of the entire residential sector in France.

One of the report's observations is that in the future it may be necessary to consume pornography in lower video resolutions - which is anyway a little kinder to the performers, since nobody wants to have all their physical imperfections portrayed in excruciatingly fine detail.

To continue reading this article register now