Hidden environmental costs

Hidden environmental costs in our daily lives, and how to reduce them — this month’s report on climate news, presented to Sustainable Gabriola by Deb Ferens. It touches on your email inbox, general internet use, generative AI, online shopping, and cryptocurrency —all activities with an invisible energy footprint.

Overflowing email inbox

A typical user receives about 75 emails daily, averaging 1.38 grams of CO2 equivalent each and producing a yearly carbon footprint of 38 kilograms, the equivalent of driving 200 kilometres in a small gas-powered car. About 4.2 billion email users sent and received 333 billion emails a day, a number that’s expected to hit 400 billion by 2026

Meanwhile, the data centres and servers like Google and Microsoft that transmit and store each email consume significant amounts of energy. Global data centres consumed roughly 340 terawatt hours in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s enough to power New York City for six years.

Meanwhile, these good habits are the foundation for email users seeking to take immediate action on their carbon footprint:

  • Delete old emails.
  • Use the right communication app for the context: Instant Messaging for things that won’t need saving, such as quick questions at work, or “I’m running late” messages.
  • Use a self-deleting function, such as the ‘disappearing messages’ option in WhatsApp.
  • Archive your stored emails. It compresses and reduces their size in the cloud so they need less power to live on.
  • Avoid reply-all. Only send email to people who need to see it – fewer people means fewer devices, less network traffic, less electricity used and fewer emissions.


The Internet

Around 4.6 billion people use the internet every day.

Research estimates that by 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than most countries’ total emissions (except for China, India and the US).

A growing proportion of IT energy consumption comes from data centres. These are buildings used to store data and computer hardware, which almost always plug directly into the local electricity grid. In most countries, that means they mostly use non-renewable sources of electricity.

A number of these data centres have been trying to reduce their environmental impact and, in the process, their energy bills. Google announced its goal to achieve 24/7 renewable energy-powered data centres by 2030. Its first such data centre became operational last year near Las Vegas. To run such centres solely off renewable energy, locating them in regions with abundant wind, solar, geothermal or hydroelectric power is vital.


Generative AI

The artificial intelligence (AI) industry is heading for an energy crisis.

ChatGPT, the chatbot created by OpenAI in San Francisco, California, is already consuming the energy of 33,000 homes. It’s estimated that a search driven by generative AI uses four to five times the energy of a conventional web search. Within years, large AI systems are likely to need as much energy as entire nations.

Generative AI systems also need enormous amounts of fresh water to cool their processors and generate electricity. In West Des Moines, Iowa, a giant data-centre cluster serves OpenAI’s most advanced model, GPT-4. A lawsuit by local residents revealed that in July 2022, the month before OpenAI finished training the model, the cluster used about 6% of the district’s water.

One preprint (link below) suggests that, globally, the demand for water for AI could be half that of the United Kingdom by 2027.

The full planetary costs of generative AI are closely guarded corporate secrets, and legislators are taking notice. On 1 February, US Democrats, led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, introduced the Artificial Intelligence Environmental Impacts Act of 2024.


Online Shopping

In June 2020, global retail e-commerce traffic reached a record 22 billion monthly visits and a staggering US$26.7 trillion in sales

In 2020, the shipping and return of products accounted for 37% of total GHG emissions.

The Issue of Over-Packaging

Product packaging contributes to CO2 emissions in large part from producing plastics, polluting ecosystems and adding enormous amounts of waste to our landfills. 3 billion trees are pulped yearly to produce 241 million tons of shipping cartons, the forest conservation group Canopy found. And of the 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year, not even 14% is recycled.

It is estimated that by 2030, the number of delivery vehicles will increase by 36%, reaching approximately 7.2 million vehicles. This will not only result in an increase of about 6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, but will also increase commutes by 21%, as vehicles will take longer to travel due to higher traffic congestion.

Cryptocurrency – Bitcoin mining impacts climate, water, land

If Bitcoin were a country, its energy consumption would have ranked 27th in the world, ahead of a country like Pakistan, with a population of over 230 million people. The resulting carbon footprint was equivalent to that of burning 84 billion pounds of coal or operating 190 natural gas-fired power plants. To offset this footprint, 3.9 billion trees should be planted, covering an area almost equal to the area of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark, or 7% of the Amazon rainforest.

Bitcoin’s water footprint is equivalent to over 660,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, enough to meet the current domestic water needs of more than 300 million people in rural sub-Saharan Africa. The land footprint of worldwide Bitcoin mining activities during this period was 1.4 times the area of Los Angeles.

China, by a large margin, has been the biggest Bitcoin mining nation. To offset the carbon emissions from China’s coal-intensive Bitcoin mining operations in 2021–2022, about 2 billion trees should be planted, covering an area equivalent to Portugal and Ireland

The world’s top 10 Bitcoin mining nations in 2020–2021 included the United States, Kazakhstan, Russia, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, Iran, Ireland, and Singapore.


GOOD NEWS: Crypto mining company loses bid to force BC Hydro to provide power

A cryptocurrency firm has lost a bid to force BC Hydro to provide the vast amounts of power needed for its operations, upholding the provincial government’s right to pause power connections for new crypto miners.

Conifex Timber Inc., a forestry firm that branched out into cryptocurrency mining, had gone to the B.C. Supreme Court to have the policy declared invalid.

BC Hydro CEO Christopher O’Riley had told the court in an affidavit that the data centres proposed by Conifex would have consumed 2.5 million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s enough to power and heat more than 570,000 apartments, according to data on the power provider’s website.


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