How much CO2 does each Megabyte of online data create?

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Alicia Mastretta

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Alicia Mastretta  asked the Naked Scientists:
Hi naked team!

This is Alicia form Mexico. I've been wondering this:

If we know that internet data is not floating in the air, but stored in a server somewhere, and servers are actually machines that need source power and cooling, and thus consume energy, how many CO2 equivalent Greenhouse Gas emissions are produced for each Mb of data stored in gmail, facebook or other 24hrs massive servers? Could this start being an issue for global warming polices in a near future or is it insignificant?

Thanks, and: great show! LOVE IT with each one of the capital letters.


What do you think?
« Last Edit: 06/02/2011 22:30:04 by _system »


Offline graham.d

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How much CO2 does each Megabyte of online data create?
« Reply #1 on: 07/02/2011 10:03:37 »
It is not just storing the data that uses energy, but in providing fast access to it (writing and reading) and the mechanisms for transporting the data. Storing data in some forms (magnetic storage or on Flash memory) does not use any power except to provide a suitable storage environment. Storing it on a memory that is required to allow fast access (magnetic disc for example) would require the disc to be actively spinning with the electronics ready to move the data on demand.

I think you may be able to see why your question is not so easy to answer. In addition to these issues, even if we make some general guesses as to how much "typical" support circuits are used, the amount of memory being stored increases every year (the increase has been exponential over the last 20 years) but the power required has not gone up to anything like the same extent.

Nonetheless, the power consumed to generally support the internet resides in the major "data centres". An estimate from Greenpeace puts the likely energy requirement to be similar to that of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil (combined) by 2020. Though this may be an exaggeration, given that Greenpeace have a political agenda, even a fraction of this is certainly significant.

In terms of how much CO2 this would represent, I am not sure, but you have to think that communicating via teleconferencing and email should reduce the amount of physical travelling somewhat, so maybe there is some compensating factors.