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Fact or fiction?

20 March 2018

A long-time reader sent me the link to a story today which, at first glance, seems to deliver a sobering message in respect to the effect modern computer and communications technologies are having on our carbon footprint.

I read the article and initially I thought "makes sense"... but then, over a cup of coffee, I began to think a little more deeply about the claims being made.

According to the article, "the Internet" already uses more power than the entire nation of Great Britain and it seems that with our insatiable lust for all-things-computery, this level of consumption will only grow.

Where will that electricity come from?

Sure. many nations are investing heavily in renewables such as solar and wind, but many countries (including the USA) still rely very heavily on carbon-based fuels to power their electricity infrastructure so reducing the carbon footprint of such energy consumption would seem to be a wee-way off yet.

But has the Internet and a massive growth in electronics-based devices really increased the demand for power?

I think I would challenge such an assertion.

I seem to recall that in the pre-Net era, I spent a lot of time, effort and energy traveling to and from bookshops and libraries, in order to sate my quest for knowledge.

Thanks to computers and the Net, now all I have to do is go online and download the knowledge I need. No more boosting my carbon footprint by jumping in the car to drive into town and browse some hardcover editions. Score 1 for the Net!

Then there's the effect that all this computer technology has had on one of the most environmentally damaging machines we've ever invented -- the car.

Computers have helped us design more fuel-efficient engines and ECUs ensure that emissions have been slashed when you compare modern-day vehicles with which were built back in the 1970s and 1980s. Score another point for computers!

Even something as simple as enjoying a Saturday night's entertainment has seen its carbon footprint slashed by modern technology. Instead of couples and families all jumping in their cars and driving down to the local movie theatre to take in a film, these days we just slump in front of Netflix, completely eliminating the two-way journey and the carbon emissions involved. More points for technology!

Even the humble TV set has gone from a steel rack of glowing valves and CRT, consuming hundreds of watts, to a flat panel display that not only produces a much better result but also does it using one third the power. Another win for modern electronics!

No, I'm sorry but the article which prompted today's column is a pretty myopic one which seems to be looking for a reason to create FUD over the advance of electronics and the Net.

Sure, we now have armies of people who spend half their lives on Facebook using their smartphone and burning up gigawatts in the process... but even these activities may well produce a lower carbon footprint than the total cost of manufacturing a book and then powering the incandescent lightbulbs needed to read it at night -- which is what we used to do in the pre-internet era.

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of this story is the fact that electricity demand in New Zealand seems to be falling rather than climbing since 2007.

So, although it is possible to paint the picture of a dystopian future caused by a rise in the proliferation and use of the Net and computing devices, that would appear to be a very narrow and distorted view of reality.

What do readers think -- have we hit "peak power" demand or will the arrival of EVs be the real catalyst for increased demand and generation -- perhaps at the cost of a significant spike in carbon emissions? Or will the reduction in vehicle emissions produced by the switch to EVs actually produce an overall lowering of carbon?

Or will the real fly in the ointment be crypto-currency mining and the surprisingly large effect it is having on electricity consumption around the world?

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