By Vijay Madlani, co-CEO, Katrick Technologies
The internet is an essential part of modern everyday life. We go online for everything from work to shopping, to communicating – and social media makes up an estimated 35% of this activity. Though posing for selfies isn’t damaging to the environment, the energy consumption and carbon emissions from charging devices, powering the internet, and running data centres can be colossal.
As of 2022, 4.62 billion people use social media in one form or another. Moreover, of the estimated seven hours each day that the average person uses the internet, the largest proportion of this is made up of social media, at an estimated 35%, or two hours and 27 minutes. Hands up if you’re guilty too!
Even the smallest action on social media produces small amounts of carbon. Instagram emits 1.5g of CO2 per minute of scrolling and posting a photo emits 0.15g. Even in the 28 minutes a day that the average Instagram user browses the app, this would result in at least 42g of CO2 on this platform alone. Each of Facebook’s 2.9 billion active users is estimated to produce 12g of CO2 annually, and on Twitter, sending a single tweet is thought to emit roughly 0.02g – a relatively low figure, until you consider that the 50 million tweets sent out daily across the globe would produce one metric tonne of CO2.
The biggest offender is TikTok. Just one minute of scrolling through TikTok videos emits 2.63g of CO2. Even five minutes a day on TikTok would add up to roughly 4800g of CO2 a year per user, which is the equivalent to the emissions released by driving over 21 miles in a car.
Though the emissions produced by small actions on an individual scale may not seem that significant, when we account for users’ overall social media use it adds up considerably. Combining this with other activities highlights that our internet use may be harmful to the environment.
But how does using social media actually produce emissions? Social media relies on the exchange of large amounts of data – data which needs to be securely and reliably stored. One of the most effective ways is through data centres. Meta is constructing an additional seven million square feet of data centre space in the USA and an additional new centre in Spain, alongside its existing centres. TikTok is set to open its first European data centre later in 2022, and Google currently has 23 worldwide.
Data centres worldwide consume just under 200TWh of energy and produce around the same amount of carbon emissions as the global aviation industry at just over 2%. One of the most significant factors in data centre energy consumption is cooling. Most data centres need to be run at a consistent stable temperature. Above these temperatures there are risks of overheating and failure. As servers produce a large amount of heat, keeping the surrounding environment cool to ensure optimum working temperatures is crucial.
With the scale of many data centres, keeping them cool is no mean feat. Not only can cooling systems be expensive to implement, powering them requires significant amounts of energy. 90% of the air conditioning and air handling units used by the UK data centre market consume between 26% and 41% of the total energy.
To address this, new innovations are in development, like passive cooling systems that use waste heat produced by data centre servers to power a Thermal Vibration Bell (TVB). This example is a unique patented system from Katrick Technologies, which uses bi-fluids to convert heat to fluid vibrations which turn into mechanical oscillations when they hit protruding fins. These fins passively dissipate unwanted hear to provide the required ambient temperatures for servers to run. Initial trials conducted at UK-based data centre provider iomart indicate that the system can reduce the energy used for cooling by 70%, which would reduce an operational carbon footprint significantly. Finding these alternative ways to cool data centres is crucial to support the world’s relentless appetite for social media. As such, innovation in this sector is more important than ever.
Internet usage will inevitably continue to underpin many important aspects of modern life. Though social media has revolutionised communications and made our planet more connected, it is important we understand the environmental consequences of these habits and how to counteract them.