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12 December 2017

'Tsunami of Data' Could Consume One Fifth of Global Electricity by 2025

Tsunami of data’ could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025

Climate Home News, part of the Guardian Environment Network, 11 December 2017

Billions of internet-connected devices could produce 3.5% of global emissions within 10 years and 14% by 2040, according to new research, reports Climate Home News

(Photo):  A Google data centre. US researchers expect power consumption to triple in the next five years as one billion more people come online in developing countries. Photograph: Google/Rex

The communications industry could use 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025, hampering attempts to meet climate change targets and straining grids as demand by power-hungry server farms storing digital data from billions of smartphones, tablets and internet-connected devices grows exponentially.

The industry has long argued that it can considerably reduce carbon emissions by increasing efficiency and reducing waste, but academics are challenging industry assumptions. A new paper, due to be published by US researchers later this month, will forecast that information and communications technology could create up to 3.5% of global emissions by 2020 – surpassing aviation and shipping – and up to 14% 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.

In an update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study, Andrae found that without 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.

He expects industry power demand to increase from 200-300 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity a year now, to 1,200 or even 3,000TWh by 2025. Data centres on their own could produce 1.9 gigatonnes (Gt) (or 3.2% of the global total) of carbon emissions, he says.

“The situation is alarming,” said Andrae, who works for the Chinese communications technology firm Huawei. “We have a tsunami of data approaching. 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.”

US researchers expect power consumption to triple in the next five years as one billion more people come online in developing countries, and the “internet of things” (IoT), driverless cars, robots, video surveillance and artificial intelligence grows exponentially in rich countries.

“There will be 8.4bn connected things in 2017, setting the stage for 20.4bn internet of things devices to be deployed by 2020,” says the leading internet analyst firm Gartner.

The industry has encouraged the idea that the digital transformation of economies and large-scale energy efficiencies will slash global emissions by 20% or more, but the scale and speed of the revolution has been a surprise.

Global internet traffic will increase nearly threefold in the next five years says the latest Cisco Visual Networking Index, a leading industry tracker of internet use.

“More than one billion new internet users are expected, growing from three billion in 2015 to 4.1bn by 2020. Over the next five years global IP networks will support up to 10bn new devices and connections, increasing from 16.3bn in 2015 to 26bn by 2020,” says Cisco.

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