Q. What does the internet have in common with Big Foot?*

*A. Big footprints

The internet has done a lot to clean up business life. We can correspond around the world remotely with email, convene meetings online instead of making business trips and can deliver services digitally. Even online shopping, dropping groceries off at consumers’ homes, is considered to be a triumph of the internet’s facilitation of the green agenda.

Indeed the cloud of data and waves of wifi that waft around us are blowing away all of that counter-productive pre-historic carbon. Or are they?

The prevailing narrative about the internet’s green credentials belies a much more concerning reality: the internet generates nearly as many carbon emissions as the global aviation industry. Think about it.

The internet has been abstracted to the point that people actually believe it is genuinely floating around us – it isn’t. The internet is a physical thing – a series of networked cables – powered by servers that host content. Wifi does allow us to connect to the internet wirelessly, but we are being connected to tangible objects.

Server farms use a phenomenal amount of energy. The server farms of some of the world’s biggest internet companies are the size of shopping centres or malls, but they use 100 times as much energy per square foot!

The pace at which we are connecting new devices to the internet is gathering momentum and the power required to serve these devices is growing on the same exponential curve.

Ireland, home of generous and occasionally controversial corporation tax regimes, has seen internet companies flock to its shores – not just for the favourable tax man but also for its unfavourable weather. The gloomy climate is helping to reduce the amount of power needed to keep servers cool.

And many internet companies, including Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, and Salesforce, have all committed to a goal of powering data centres with 100% renewable energy. Some of them are pursuing real innovation in renewables, not just because they are evangelical about the environment, but because it makes economic sense to do so.

Google, for instance, has bought more than 2GW of renewable energy to date and is expanding its renewables portfolio around the world.

We should welcome the move by internet companies to pursue renewables so enthusiastically and encourage them to continue and do more. But while you are reading this on whatever device in whichever place, please keep in mind that the internet is like Big Foot: you can’t see it but it has a footprint. 

Jen Roberts

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search