How the internet could increase global warming

How the internet could fire up ‘almost unlimited’ energy use
Credit: Wikipedia

The huge anticipated growth of IoT threatens to use so much power that carbon emissions will be impossible to tame and global warming will escalate, researchers say

We might have to limit the growth of the Internet of Things, according Lancaster University researchers.

The reason for the frightening suggestion is that massive data-collection efforts from billions of projected-to-be-commissioned IoT sensors threaten to suck up so much power that carbon emissions will be impossible to tame and global warming will escalate, they say.

A kind of “speed limit” should be introduced now, the scientists suggest. By imposing restrictions in the short term, internet traffic won’t have to be curtailed in the future—when things will be really out of hand—the experts propose in their recently published paper (PDF).

“There are no limits to growth when it comes to the internet except for the energy supply itself,” the paper says, quoting a Low-Tech magazine article.

In 2015, that magazine was the first to propose draconian limits, and it suggests that, unlike pre-IoT times, there is now no ceiling to the use of power.

The hazards of an ever-growing internet

IoT sensors will be so attractive, and so much data will be accumulated, that the internet will continue to grow until something stops it, the researchers contend. “Unwatched and unabated” data pipe-hogging background security patches are an example of something that will continue to dominate, as will selfish background cloud activities.

Getting to an end game of billions of sensors would not only be bad for the environment, but its culmination could result in running out of power for other things, the researchers say. And they say mankind should start addressing the problem immediately.

Currently the internet makes up a paltry 5 percent of worldwide electricity use, the students claim. But it’s growing rapidly. In fact, it’s growing at rate that’s faster (7 percent) than the overall global electricity consumption of 3 percent.

Obviously, if it were to continue to do that in an open market economy, at one point, if people were prepared to pay for it, information technologies would use all power. The magazine author, Kris De Decker, and university researchers don’t think it will get that bad, though. They are going with predictions of 20 percent to 30 percent of world supply by 2030. But that’s bad enough, they say.

Energy-efficient systems have opposite effect

One counter-argument to the scientists’ doomsday scenario, and something that’s actually taking place, is that energy is getting more efficient and more Green. So, theoretically, efficiency would cause less power use, and eco-friendly systems, such as solar, would mitigate carbon emissions.

Low Tech magazine says that’s not a valid argument.

“On the internet, advances in energy efficiency have a reverse effect. As the network becomes more energy efficient, its total energy use increases,” De Decker writes.

Its position is a bit like the argument used in road planning: If you create more roads and it becomes easier for people to go places, the roads get filled up again. If it’s inconvenient to travel by road, people use public transportation.

In other words, you shouldn’t widen roads if you care about transport efficiency. Welcome to a future of dial-up?

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