Despacito’s footprint

One song shows how much carbon our digital lives emit – and how urgently Big Tech needs to control its soaring energy requirements

Since its launch in January 2017 the reggaeton hit Despacito by Luis Fonsi has been downloaded over 7 billion times. In the process it may have consumed as much energy as Eritrea, Chad, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic do in an entire year.

Why this story?

Sitting for hours a day in front of a sleek laptop feels like a relatively climate-friendly way to pass the time. It isn’t. Every download and Google search has a carbon footprint.

Each one is small but they add up to a giant environmental impact and an equally giant headache for Big Tech, as James Whyte discovered, initially by measuring the footprint of Luis Fonsi’s biggest hit. Giles Whittell, editor

Although our digital lives may feel intangible and weightless, the burden they place on the planet is real and growing. With its voracious appetite for energy, the digital world is not as green as it might appear. Big Tech needs to be part of the solution in achieving net zero by 2030.

The New Oil

Each digital click contributes a tiny trace to the climate crisis, but with over 4.5 billion people now online the sheer scale of the digital world begins to add up. Google estimates that a single search on its platform is equivalent to 0.2 grams of CO2, about the same as the average car emits driving one metre. Yet Google’s 3.5 billion daily searches equate to driving that car around the planet 54 times. Our online lifestyles are reflected in Big Tech’s share of greenhouse gas emissions which has increased by half since 2013, from 2.5 per cent to 3.7 per cent of the total – comparable with the (pre-Covid) airline industry. And these emissions are predicted to double again by 2025.

Fans at the Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival in Wantagh, New York

Data is the new oil, and as digital products become more data hungry their carbon footprint grows faster. It’s estimated that 60 per cent of data downloaded from the internet is now accounted for by video streaming services. In 2019, Netflix’ global energy consumption increased by 84 per cent to 451,000 megawatt hours, equivalent to 100,000 average UK homes for a year. And with 26 million new subscribers in the first half of 2020, demand for Netflix is skyrocketing. When CEO Reed Hastings was asked who his main competitor was, his answer was simple – “Sleep”.

Virginia’s Loudoun County, just east of Washington DC, has the world’s largest concentration of telecoms and satellite communications companies. Seventy per cent of the planet’s internet traffic passes through “Data Center Alley” and its energy demand is also on the rise. Today there are over 100 data centres in the Alley and a typical facility consumes as much power as 7,500 households, according to Dominion Energy, the main provider of electricity in northern Virginia, which operates three coal-fired power stations in the state.

Sleeping Giants

Many of the faceless grey installations here belong to Amazon, which has pledged to be 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy by 2030. It has some way to go. A Greenpeace report last year claimed Amazon had expanded its operations in Virginia by almost 60 per cent in two years without adding any new renewable energy capacity. The company’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 15 per cent in 2019. For its part Amazon stands by its 2030 target and has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans which it anticipates will reduce emissions by 4 million metric tons by 2030. It also launched a $2 billion fund in June to promote technologies to reduce emissions – although $2 billion is about 0.1 per cent of the value of the $1.6 trillion company. Amazon doesn’t expect to be completely carbon neutral for another two decades.

An employee inspects equipment in the air filter room inside Facebook‘s data storage centre near the Arctic Circle in Lulea, Sweden. The data center handles all data processing from Europe, Middle East and Africa

Cutting carbon emissions is becoming a point of competitive distinction among the tech giants. In September last year Google pledged to achieve zero emissions by 2030, at the same time striking 18 wind and solar energy deals in what it called the “biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history”. In July this year Apple matched Google’s commitment to be carbon neutral across its entire business by 2030. The impact on Apple’s supply chain is perhaps the most significant. The company has commitments from over 70 suppliers worldwide to use 100% renewable energy in manufacturing Apple products. If this target is met it would be equivalent to taking 3 million cars off the road each year.

Microsoft is competing, too. It has a $1 billion fund to accelerate the development of carbon removal technologies and its data centres have been 100 per cent renewable since 2014. More ambitiously, in January this year the company announced its intention to not just achieve net zero by 2030 but to become carbon negative. Its stated aim is to remove enough carbon by 2050 to balance all its emissions since the company was founded in 1975. “The companies that can go negative should, to provide a buffer for those who can’t get to zero,” says the firm’s chief environmental officer, Lucas Joppa.

A chance to lead

Big Tech has been more proactive than many industries but with a combined value of over $4 trillion – equal to the GDP of Germany – it has the resources to take a far more decisive lead. If all the tech giants committed to be carbon negative by 2030, that would be a big step forward. Greenpeace has welcomed their initiatives so far but has also highlighted the use of carbon removal strategies and carbon offsets, all of which are open to the vagaries of creative carbon accounting. To reach a wider goal of Net Zero by 2030, Big Tech should focus on ensuring the carbon isn’t put into the atmosphere in the first place.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California is the largest solar thermal power-tower system in the world. It uses 347,000 computer-controlled mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers on top of three 459-foot towers, where water is heated to produce steam to power turbines providing power to more than 140,000 California homes

How can they do this? Microsoft’s internal carbon fee is one approach. Since 2012 the company has operated an internal charge, now set at $15 per tonne, to incentivise its business units to reduce their carbon emissions. Proceeds pay for sustainability improvements and, from next year, what amounts to an internal carbon tax will also be applied to emissions from Microsoft’s suppliers. While the company’s own 2030 target is voluntary, its suppliers’ carbon fee is not. It’s a recognition that mandatory carbon charges are needed to drive change in the more reluctant reaches of the tech universe.

Even with their own pet projects, the tech giants can stumble. The Quayside District of Toronto was the site of a promising initiative by Google’s urban innovation subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs. Launched in 2017, the project’s aim was to develop an affordable and sustainable neighbourhood of autonomous vehicles, smart sensors, energy-efficient buildings and advanced power grids – a blueprint for a carbon negative future, cutting greenhouse emissions by 89 per cent. In May the project was cancelled amid local concern for data privacy and a general lack of transparency. Jim Balsillie, the BlackBerry founder, called it “a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism”.

The Sidewalk Labs failure showed how worried people are about Big Tech and data privacy even if they aren’t as worried yet about Big Tech and carbon. Sidewalk Labs had proposed an Urban Data Trust to be “a steward of urban data and public interest without stifling innovation,” but ultimately the legislative framework to protect privacy and access rights is still lacking in many jurisdictions. Without such a framework, the smart infrastructure needed for dramatic carbon cuts will be severely hampered. That needs to be addressed urgently if other Big Tech blueprints are to avoid the Sidewalk Labs’ fate.

Luis Fonsi

Our addiction to digitalisation – and to Despacito – shows no sign of waning. A more informed and thoughtful use of our digital tools would be good for the environment as well as our mental wellbeing, but to make a full contribution to the target of Net Zero by 2030, the tech giants themselves must address their ever-increasing demand for energy. Carbon negative targets should be the standard, aggressively promoted with carbon fees. Big Tech’s deep pockets should not be used just to offset their carbon emissions but harnessed to promote sustainable technologies for everyone.

All photographs Getty Images. Illustration by Lizzie Lomax

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