Many point to the paperless "information economy" as the sustainable solution that will allow for continuous economic growth without overtaxing Earth’s ecosystems. Yet there is an active debate about this possibility as demand for Information-Communication-Technology infrastructure (ICT) grows at tremendous rates. Some research shows that the ICT will likely face real world limits to growth due to its rapidly increasing demand for electricity, its dependence on rare earth elements, and the likelihood of reaching "peak data," in which the radiofrequency spectrum required for wireless services will run out. Meanwhile, other research indicates that applications of these new technologies can result in an overall reduction in the use of energy and other resources. The following article appeared in the May-June 2014 NewsNotes.
Energy: Much of the energy used by the ICT is hidden to consumers. Many think the recharging of their computers, tablets or cell phones as the energy involved in their computer usage. But as a recent report by the Digital Power Group points out, "Although charging up a single tablet or smart phone requires a negligible amount of energy, using either to watch an hour of video weekly consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year."
Meanwhile as monetary costs of computing power decrease, global usage of the ICT is increasing at a rapid pace. "Hourly internet traffic will soon exceed the annual traffic of the year 2000." And "[t]hese broad ICT trends – declining costs, rising global demands – are now being amplified by the emerging transformation of the Internet into what is being popularly termed the Cloud, and the Mobile Internet."
Wireless technology is much more energy intensive than wired, as instead of all the electricity demands coming from central offices, wireless communication requires "power in three locations: central office, cell towers, and at the customer, multiplying the energy" needed.
The power density (watts/square foot) of data centers is much higher than commercial office space and while offices are becoming more efficient, data centers are becoming even more energy intensive. "The average square foot of a data center uses 100 to 200 times more electricity than [that] of a modern office building."
The report warns that "as the next Cloud-dominated era expands, many existing data centers will be gutted and rebuilt, or entirely replaced with state-of-the-art ICT equipment [with] far more power per square foot of space occupied by the equipment… unlike other industrial-classes of electric demand, newer data facilities see higher, not lower, power densities."
While computers require high amounts of energy to access the Cloud, energy used in their original production, or embodied energy, is a bigger problem. According to MIT researcher Timothy Gutowski, the energy requirements of semiconductor manufacturing techniques are much higher than that, up to six orders of magnitude (that’s 1,000,000 times) above those of conventional manufacturing processes.
For a smart phone, the embodied energy ranges from 70 to 90 percent of the electricity the phone will use over its life, counting recharging its battery. This is quite unlike other consumer products. For a refrigerator, embodied energy is only four percent of total life cycle energy; power to run the fridge dominates. For a car only 20 percent of life cycle energy is in manufacturing. In addition, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, to manufacture one computer and monitor, requires 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water.
The rapid pace at which most ICT technologies become obsolete, often "needing" to be replaced in 3-4 years, means that all of that embodied energy and resource use is lost forever after a machine is replaced. "The embodied energy can’t be recycled; it has been consumed." And the disposal of electronic waste is creating social and environmental crises in a number of countries especially in Africa and Asia.
Unfortunately, increases in energy efficiency do not appear able to control this rapid increase in energy use. While there are constant improvements in efficiency, the rate of improvement has slowed notably since 2005, while the number of Internet-connected devices has proliferated greatly. "Trends now promise faster, not slower, growth in ICT energy use."
While the ICT currently uses an estimated 10 percent of world electricity production, current trends indicate huge increases in coming years. Research at the Center for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications in Melbourne shows that "[t]he consumption of the [ICT] network starts to approach total global electricity supply in 2025. Clearly something needs to be done about this."
Rare earth elements: Another limit to ICT growth is its dependency on many rare earth elements (REE) such as neodymium, dysprosium and terbium. An i-Phone, for example, uses eight of these elements. Newer technologies tend to use increasing amounts of REE. The scarcity of these resources is hindering not only new ICT technologies but also a number of green technologies that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While some of these metals are not actually as rare as their name implies, they rarely are found in concentrated amounts, making them difficult and expensive to mine. China dominates REE production - in 2011 China provided 97 percent of world production. Though other countries are trying to ramp up REE production, caring for the toxic and radioactive waste generated in their mining and processing is difficult and expensive creating incentives for countries to lower their environmental standards in order to compete in this market.
"Peak data": All wireless communications pass through a spectrum of radiofrequency and as more spectrums cannot be created, this is a real limit to the growth of a wireless future. According to a report released by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), World Without Wires, many global cities are quickly approaching the point of "peak data." "Currently the useable spectrum is divided up and allocated to various uses, such as TV/radio broadcast, emergency services, and mobile phone communications for example," CSIRO’s director Dr. Ian Oppermann said. "In the future, how spectrum is allocated may change and we can expect innovation to find new ways to make it more efficient but the underlying position is that spectrum is an increasingly rare resource."
Energy and resource saving applications: While these limits exist, some researchers point to energy and resource saving applications of technology that could result in an overall reduction in resource use. Paul Wellbank, a technology consultant points to a favorite example - the use of car parking apps where drivers save energy and reduce pollution because they aren’t driving around looking for the parking spaces. Others point to how digital downloads of music and video use 40 to 80 percent less energy than the sale of physical CDs and DVDs. There are a variety of ICT technology applications that help businesses streamline their supply chains, resulting in significant decreases in resource use, as well as technologies to reduce energy use in buildings and other resource-saving functions.
As the ICT grows rapidly this is clearly an area that needs more research in order to truly understand the total effects of its growth. Perhaps Karen Shapiro of the Tellus Institute best summarizes the situation in her review of the book The Ecology of the New Economy, written by Nigel Roome and Jacob Park: "The doomsayers predict that [ICT] technologies will fuel the further need for electricity, whereas the optimists project net energy savings. The scholarship encompassed by [the book] suggests that the truth is probably somewhere in between and is largely dependent on how these new technologies are deployed and whether their deployment is guided by sustainable development considerations."