Thursday, May 26, 2016

How Much do Computers Contribute to Climate Warming?

The bitcoin logo
The bitcoin logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The dirty parts of the computing world (Nathan Ensmenger, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Apr. 11, 2016)

 Today we review as assessment of the degree to which computers and computer networks contribute to or pollute with energy use, water consumption, mining and e-waste. In all four categories computer technology plays a significant role with 2 of global electricity use, and 25 tons of e-waste from Western countries alone. A typical desktop computer uses 30% more energy than the standard refrigerator. The computational output from Bitcoin is 256 times the combined capacity of the world’s 500 top supercomputers. In many countries, energy is produced from fuels such as coal and natural gas which produce carbon emissions. Clearly computers should be part of the accounting of the world’s energy, waste and water tallies.  

Key Quotes:

“Places such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Microsoft have facilities much larger than CERN’s, which they use for taking on even bigger volumes of high-throughput computing jobs.. Data centers contain the machines that do the actual work behind such activities as shopping online, booking the world’s hotel and automobile reservations, transmitting movies down fiber optic lines, emailing, storing photos, putting up people’s billions of Facebook posts”

“It seems that much of our shiny, white, iPad economy—promoted so heavily as environmentally friendly—actually runs on dirty black coal.”  

four aspects of the online economy:
  1. energy use -” data centers alone account for almost 2 percent of all global electricity use, and this use is projected to increase by at least 12 percent annually.. if the Cloud were a country, it would rank sixth overall in national energy consumption, behind the United States, China, Russia, India, and Japan—but well ahead of Germany, Canada, Brazil, and France” 'The energy burden of a desktop computer, for example, is 1.3 times that of a refrigerator. The total amount of fossil fuels used to make one desktop computer weighs over 240 kilograms, or about 520 pounds" 
  2.  water consumption “Cooling even a medium-size high-density server farm can require as much as 360,000 gallons of water (1,362,748 liters) per day.” 
  3. mining of the materials needed for the global digital economy. “Many of the rare earth elements crucial to both high-tech mobile devices and renewable energy technologies are controlled almost entirely by China, and are found only as by-products of traditional extractive industries.  
  4. e-waste “Western nations alone account for more than 25 million tons of e-waste every year, and the disposal of this waste—often in less environmentally regulated regions of the developing world—introduces into the environment such dangerous contaminants as lead, antimony, mercury, cadmium, and nickel, as well as polybrominated diphenyl ethers and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)” “Bitcoin’s worldwide computational output is closing on on 200 exaflops—or, to put it another way, 256 times the combined capacity of the world’s top 500 supercomputers,”

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