Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Over the last few months, many of us have turned to digital devices to stay connected. We wondered: how much energy are we using with all of this time online?  

We had Isha Chawla and Fatima Husain from our Possibly team look into this. Welcome, Isha and Fatima!

Isha Chawla: Hi, Megan!

Fatima Husain: Hello!

Megan Hall: So, Isha, now that I’m working remotely, I use video conferencing almost every day… Plus my kids are getting LOTS of screen time. Should I be worried about how much energy we’re using when we’re all on the internet?  

Isha Chawla: To find out, we called Dr. Eric Masanet, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies the environmental impact of new technologies. He says…

Eric Masanet: The IT industry has seen efficiency gains that are faster than really any other sector of the economy.

Fatima Husain: Eric says that despite huge leaps in the amount of information we store and share online, data centers still only make up 1% of the world’s electricity consumption. And they’ve held steady at that percentage since 2010.  

Megan Hall: Wait, how is that possible? How can the percentage stay constant while data centers are still being built around the world?

Isha Chawla: IT companies are constantly reducing their energy use, because when their energy costs go down, their profit margins go up. For example, data centres tend to get really hot, and that’s bad for the servers. But Eric says, IT companies… 

Eric Masanet: figured out ways of cooling the data center with very little energy use.

Megan Hall: How?

Fatima Husain: Mostly just by installing energy-efficient cooling systems. But some companies have taken the next step and built their data centers in cooler places.

Isha Chawla: Companies are also finding ways to pack in more computing power into each server, so they can do more with the same amount of energy.  

Megan Hall: But won’t they eventually run out of ways to be more efficient?

Fatima Husain: Yes, but Eric says there will still be a lot of opportunities to save energy through better software and hardware. 

Isha Chawla: On top of that, he says… 

Eric Masanet: A lot of the big IT companies are making pledges to transition, perhaps even fully, to renewable energy. 

Fatima Husain: A 2018 report found that most of the corporate investments in renewable energy technologies were coming from IT companies.

Megan Hall: That’s good to hear. So, I guess I don’t have to worry about all the time I’m spending on Netflix! 

Isha Chawla: Well, not really— Eric says it’s people like you and me, not data centers, that create the most waste.  

Eric Masanet: Most of the energy usage generally is the end user devices: the routers in your home, PC, your laptop, cell phone, tablet, those consume the most energy.

Megan Hall: So, what should I be doing?

Isha Chawla: So first, make sure you’re buying energy efficient devices. An easy way to do that is to look for an “energy star” certification the next time you’re buying a TV or laptop. 

Fatima Husain: And browsing the web does create carbon emissions. So, don’t leave Netflix streaming while you’re sleeping or away from your laptop.

Isha Chawla: And connect to WiFi whenever you can — when you stream through mobile networks you’re using about four times as much electricity!.

Megan Hall: Wow, I had no idea!

Fatima Husain: But, let’s put this in perspective: You might be spending more time online, but you’re also probably travelling less.

Isha Chawla: Which has led to an overall decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. One study found that emissions in April of this year were down by 17% compared to 2019!

Fatima Husain: So, Megan, we don’t need to cancel our video calls! 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Isha and Fatima! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio. 

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