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Yes it's Friday!
Friday, 1st February. I know; February already!
This is Anthony Day and this is your latest Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you to all of you out there listening, listening I may say in ever-increasing numbers, and listening all over the world. Thanks to people like Patron Iain Duke who's asked me to look at the conflict between development and de-growth. I haven't forgotten, Iain. I'm working on it.
The Google Question
In the meantime here’s an episode focusing on energy. Last time I left you with a number of questions from Patron Shane Hall. How much energy does it take to make a Google search? How much power is used by data centres? Will our Internet usage ever reach a point that we have to conserve our usage, in the same way we now conserve our energy around the home (by turning off lights and so on)? Will we limit our Google searches to x amount per day? Will we choose to play videos in SD rather than HD? And there’s more, but let’s look at those first.
But I thought I’d start by looking at the global energy supply. Energy is bound up with sustainability because so much of it comes from fossil fuels which in turn produce greenhouse gases which accelerate climate change. We've all read headlines saying that we’ve seen weeks or even months when our electricity has come exclusively from renewables, but I wanted to stand back and look at the big picture. How far have we come? First I looked at energy: all sorts of energy used to power industry, transport and heating as well as to generate electricity. Then I looked at electricity alone.
Looking at the totality of global energy supply: where does it all come from and how has that changed over time? I looked at figures from the World Energy Organisation and the International Energy Agency (IEA). Links to the data are on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report . Let me know if you want the spreadsheets where I have analysed the figures.
The period I looked at started in 1990 and the most recent figures are those for 2016. According to IEA figures the share of renewable energy has grown from 12.9% to 14%, which looks quite small, but the renewables figure includes biofuels and waste which were already contributing a significant amount of energy in 1990. Over the period the total energy supply grew by 58%, which meant that all sources of energy had to grow to keep up and to grow very rapidly to increase their share. Energy from oil increased by 36%, from coal by 68% and from natural gas by 82% . Some renewables increased their production by more than 500%, but from a very low base. While 14% of world energy was produced by renewables in 2016, 81% still came from fossil fuels. (The rest came from nuclear.) That’s total energy.
Let’s now look at electricity alone. Over the period electricity generation increased by 111%. In other words it more than doubled. Coal increased its share and so did natural gas, but the use of oil to generate electricity declined by 30%. By 2016 renewables were generating over 24% of world electricity, but with nuclear contributing 10% some 65% was still coming from fossil fuels. I’m sure that when the figures for 2017 and 2018 appear they will continue to show increased renewable electricity, but the situation at the moment is that if you use electricity, on average more than half of it has a carbon footprint. There may not be a shortage of electricity and it may remain affordable, but perhaps the environmentally responsible thing to do is to use less of it.
OK - How much energy does it take to make a Google search? A story in the Sunday Times some years ago suggested that it was about as much as needed to boil a kettle for a cup of tea, based on research by a Harvard professor. He indignantly denied that claim, saying that his research hadn’t mentioned Google at all. The official Google blog agreed. Their figure is 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ. A number of different comparators are cited; for example Google says that a typical individual's Google use for an entire year would produce about the same amount of CO2 as just a single load of washing. The company is actively looking to reduce its energy use, to use renewable energy and it encourages employees to use biodiesel shuttles and bicycles to move round its sites.
There’s no doubt that data centres use vast amounts of power, to operate the equipment and to keep it cool and in a clean atmosphere.
Inhabit reports that the new Stockholm Data Parks will use renewable energy to power data centres and the heat produced will be sold to district heating company Fortum Värme, which has been looking to biomass or waste to provide heating instead of fossil fuels. The presence of a district heating system sets Stockholm up to utilise data centre heat on a large scale.
Data Under Water
In another report Inhabit explains that Microsoft is experimenting with data centres installed on the ocean floor. Since nearly half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the sea, underwater servers could be closer to users. The ocean provides cooling and MS is looking at the possibility of using the energy from ocean currents to provide the power.
Exploiting the Cloud
Amazon started off as a bookshop and now tries to sell us everything. Amazon Web Services runs its servers and data centres and provides services to many other organisations. On its website it says:
"In addition to the environmental benefits inherently associated with running applications in the cloud, AWS has a long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure.”
I wondered what they meant by environmental benefits inherently associated with running applications in the cloud, but the explanation came further down the page.
“A typical large-scale cloud provider achieves approximately 65% server utilisation rates versus 15% on-premises, which means when companies move to the cloud, they typically provision fewer than ¼ of the servers than they would on-premises.”
They also go on to explain that by running the most efficient servers and the most efficient supporting infrastructure they can reduce power consumption by as much as 84%. The company operates six solar farms and three wind farms in North America. By January 2018 it was sourcing 50% of its electricity from renewables.
In April 2018 Apple announced its global facilities were powered with 100 percent clean energy. This achievement included retail stores, offices, data centres and co-located facilities in 43 countries. The company also announced nine additional manufacturing partners had committed to power all of their Apple production with 100 percent clean energy, bringing the total number of supplier commitments to 23.
At the time of the announcement Apple had 25 operational renewable energy projects around the world, totalling 626 megawatts of generation capacity, with 286 megawatts of solar PV generation coming online in 2017, its most ever in one year. It also had 15 more projects in construction. Once built, over 1.4 gigawatts of clean renewable energy generation would be spread across 11 countries.
Black or White?
Google says that your computer uses more energy to make a search than its equipment does. Some suggest that it’s the energy needed to display a largely white screen that’s the cause. Indeed, the latest Apple operating system, Mojave, gives you the option to use a dark screen. I don’t like it much. Unfortunately it’s not always as simple as that. The old CRT displays - you remember, the great big boxy things like televisions used to be - they definitely use energy to light up the screen. Modern flat screens are of three types: LCD, LED-lit LCD and OLED. Both LCD screens use a backlight which is on all the time. They create black by making individual pixels opaque to block out the backlight. This takes slightly more energy, so this type of screen - the LCD screen - uses less power when the display is all white. OLED displays do not have a backlight. Individual pixels are turned off or on to emit light. With these screens black is best: with no backlight and all the pixels turned off, power consumption is minimised.
I haven’t been able to determine which type of screen my iMac has. It just says Intel Iris Pro 1536 MB graphics.
It’s unsurprising that major users of electricity like a data centre operators are doing all that they can to use as little as possible by using it as efficiently as possible. There is only so much to go around, and while all sorts of new generation plants are being constructed, demand continues to grow.
It’s suggested that information and communications technology, or ICT, could create up to 3.5% of global emissions by 2020 – surpassing aviation and shipping – and up to 14% by 2040 – around the same proportion as the US today.
Global computing power demand from internet-connected devices, high resolution video streaming, emails, surveillance cameras and a new generation of smart TVs is increasing 20% a year, consuming roughly 3-5% of the world’s electricity in 2015, says Swedish researcher Anders Andrae.
He believes that without further dramatic increases in efficiency, the ICT industry could use 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. This would be more than any country except the US, China and India.
“The situation is alarming,” says Andrae, “Everything which can be is being digitalised. It is a perfect storm. 5G, [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalised, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centres.” It’s the internet of things. We've just bought a new electric car and it has a Sim card in it. We can control certain of its functions remotely from a smartphone. We just bought an Internet radio so of course that's also on the Internet and incidentally that too can be controlled from a smartphone.
There are many things in the home and in offices which are switched on all the time. It's certainly not recommended to turn your router off these days, (and why would you?) because we go online so much.
Do we have to cut back?
Shane asks if we’re going to have to conserve our usage, to limit our Google searches and play videos in SD rather than HD. I think the answer is that we will use as much electricity as we can afford, but as demand increases the price is likely to go up. This will especially be the case if governments take climate change and emissions reductions seriously and put a cap on the energy produced from oil, gas and coal.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, although it’s only a glimmer. Many of the devices that we are now using for home security and control and for measuring and monitoring all manner of things use tiny amounts of electricity, but each one has to have a battery and in due course each battery has to be replaced. At the same time, wherever we are, well almost everywhere, we are surrounded by electromagnetic radiation from WiFi, from mobile phone masts, from television and radio transmitters and from communications satellites. The energy involved is extremely small and the waves pass through us without having any effect. (As far as we know.) Now scientists at MIT have created an ultra-thin molybdenum disulphide film which can harvest some of this energy. It’s not a lot, but it could be stored in a battery and used to charge your smart phone - a bit. It could be used to power sensors which have a very low energy consumption. It could be used to power implanted medical sensors. Using such systems would save very much larger amounts of energy which would otherwise be needed to produce new batteries, deliver them to the point of use and install them. And the old ones have to be properly disposed of as well.
Time to De-Clutter?
Going back to the data centres; do we know what they are storing, or, more to the point, do we need everything that they are storing?
Shane gives the example of searching for a song. You can find the same thing in many different places on the internet. There’s a similar situation with this very podcast. It’s hosted on Libsyn and that’s where I upload the audio file. Patrons usually get it early, so I also upload the file to that site. As far as I know, iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher don’t copy the file, they just set up pointers to the original on Libsyn. I have to upload a third copy on to Sound Cloud though. Then there are the pictures. Each episode has a picture which I download from Pixabay. I usually have to duplicate it and reduce its size and then it’s uploaded twice to Libsyn, once to Patreon, once to SoundCloud and once to Blogger. Libsyn forwards it to LinkedIn and Facebook.
The Lost Websites
There’s another aspect as well. I used to build my own websites using MS FrontPage. Anybody remember that? It’s long gone, but I feel sure that some of those websites are still up there somewhere. I’ve forgotten where they are. How many other people have done similar things? By the way, what happens when someone stops paying the renewal fee for a domain? I suppose they stop paying the hosting fee at the same time, so the host just deletes the files. But if they have a comprehensive hosting agreement which covers their live files for other domains then there are presumably orphaned files out there in the ether. Or rather, taking up space on some distant server.
The Ghost in the Machine
Then there’s what you might call the ghost in the machine. Every year Facebook prompts me to wish Happy Birthday to good friends. Sadly two of them died years ago. Their identities and their data are still there in the cloud. The internet is really very, very new, but its users are all ageing - some with a lot further to go than others - but thousands must be shuffling off this mortal coil every day, leaving data behind on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest, which is carefully protected indefinitely at the cost of energy and carbon footprints.
The Smartphone Impact
Looking at the hardware side of the Internet, specifically smart phones, what sort of environmental impact do they have? Not inconsiderable. They are a consumer product and built with the good old 1960s concept of planned obsolescence. Every company has a new model every year and many will bribe you to upgrade your phone to a shiny new one before the end of your 24 month contract. As for the old one, you give it away, throw it away or just leave it in a drawer.
The environmental consequences of this are wide-ranging. The disposal of the old phone is problematical. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency 141 million phones are discarded 2009 but only 12 million were recycled. I’m assuming that that relates to the United States alone, and it’s a fair assumption that the figures are much greater by now. With the exception of the Fairphone, and I'll talk about that later, smartphones are not designed to be recycled. Somebody has suggested that there is 17 times as much goals in a ton of scrap mobile phones as there is in a ton of ore. Nobody seems to have found a way of getting it out. Apart from gold, phones contain a whole host of rare earth metals. A consequence of this is that electronics going to landfill in the United States account for only 2% of waste but create 70% of the heavy metal pollution as they break down and the metals leach out.
If the rare earth metals cannot be extracted from scrap phones then new material has to be mined in order to manufacture new ones. Obtaining these metals can be a very environmentally unfriendly process. The days of picking up nuggets of gold off the ground are long gone. These days the extraction of gold from ore involves extensive chemical processes and leaves highly polluting liquids and residues. Other materials are classed as conflict minerals. These come from unstable nations, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo. All the major manufacturers distance themselves from conflict minerals, but when they buy components its not always possible to be sure of exactly where the raw materials came from.
Some time ago I told you about a charity called Falling Whistles. It seeks to help rehabilitate the child soldiers who guard the mines where coltan is extracted. It's called Falling Whistles because the children too to small to carry a gun just have a whistle.
Think of these child soldiers when you get a new phone and throw away the old one. Think also not only of the physical materials that went into that phone, but think of the water, the energy and the human labour that were involved. All of that is thrown away when we discard a phone or any product. Even if some of the material is recovered for recycling, and most of it is not, the benefits of all the other inputs are lost. That’s the penalty of measuring recycling by volume, not value.
What about a FairPhone?
The Fairphone is a modular phone designed to be upgraded or repaired. You can install a new battery if you need to - you don’t have to discard the phone if the battery fails. A new battery costs just €20. Other spare parts are available, from a new display at €85, a front camera at €45 to a daughterboard at €5 and a speaker at €1.29. It comes from an organisation with a mission, a determination to avoid the products of child labour and a commitment to avoid using conflict minerals.
The Fairphone takes two SIM cards, has front and back cameras, and a 5-inch display. You can expand the memory with a micro SD card and it runs Android. Do I have one? No, because I’m committed to Apple and all my applications are linked across all my devices. I can’t see Apple making a Fairphone lookalike to run IOS because they are committed to selling as many phones as they can as quickly as they can. Making phones repairable just damps that market. Nevertheless, the Fairphone could just be the shape of things to come.
…or a basic phone?
Or you could just go back to a basic phone and keep it for years. That’s what our colleague Shane recommends, and there’s a link to his blog on that on the Sustainable Futures Report blog. You know where it is by now!
I leave you with two stories. The first relates to artificial intelligence (AI), something many people are very afraid of. Working with the United Nations, Consultants McKinsey have found ways in which AI can be used for social good. They claim to have worked on projects across all 17 of the United Nations sustainable development goals. For example, artificial intelligence running on a smartphone can help blind or partially sighted people to find their way around, to recognise friends or to identify banknotes. AI has been used in disaster areas to plot escape routes and in Africa to track and trap wildlife poachers. It sometimes seems that we are overwhelmed by technology and social media is certainly revealing its dark side. Against that there are more and more ways in which developing technologies can be used for good.
The other story comes from Transform, the journal of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. They report that investor and shareholder advocacy groups have called on BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, to “vastly improve” its climate action commitments and stewardship of highly polluting companies.
In a letter to CEO Larry Fink, nine NGOs including ShareAction and ClientEarth accused the world’s largest asset manager of consistently voting against shareholder climate proposals.
This is despite “growing urgency to tackle the risk of climate change to the global economy”, with BlackRock, which has over $6.4trn (£5trn) in assets under management, said to have a worse track record than other large fund managers.
Hopefully this will do some good, since Friends of the Earth warned this week that we have only 12 years left to sort out climate change. Actually that’s not quite right. What the recent IPCC report said, was that we would face disaster in 12 years time if we didn't start doing something about the climate and emissions now. Mind you, that was last year so now there are only 11 years left.
Slumming it in Davos
Businesses and politicians met in the Swiss resort of Davos this month to discuss global economics. No doubt Black Rock was represented there. The opening keynote was by naturalist David Attenborough warning of the limited time we have to avoid climate disaster. A little ironic that many of the delegates flew in by private jet and choked the streets of the town with their luxury limousines.
At least 16-year-old campaigner Greta Thunberg walked the talk. She took a 32-hour train journey to come and address the conference. With outside temperatures of 0℃ she decided to stay in a tent, rather than a hotel.
"Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we will have created,” she said, “but that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame. Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
Was anyone listening?
And that’s it for now.
I'm Anthony Day.
Thanks to my patrons for their support
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That was the Sustainable Futures Report
-and there’ll be another one next week.