Technology is traditionally seen as having a positive impact on the environment. Increases in remote working and better collaboration software have reduced the need for employees to travel for work. Paperless offices are now the gold standard (even despite the legal professions love of printing out everything!).
But data centres are massively power hungry and the seemingly unlimited capacity of the internet leads to its being used wastefully. Billions of pointless spam emails are sent each week, bots run all over the internet 24/7 and all of us have dozens of unused accounts and apps that we have not accessed for years but still whirl away in the background. Although each is tiny, the scale is massive. All of this puts load on data centres with them sucking up more and more power.
And it’s not all ones and zeros flying around hidden fibre optic cables that criss-cross the planet. Mining for rare earth metals used in high-tech products, from smartphones to wind turbines, is causing immediate damage to the environment and the refining process produces toxic waste.
Today’s use of technology can perhaps be compared to the attitude towards oil in the mid-20th Century. Easy access to cheap oil created huge advances in society, bringing with it prosperity and better living standards for many. But its abundance also led to inefficiency, environmental harm and inequality – the price for which is only now being realized and paid.
Energy efficiency standards have existed for some time but have focused on hardware. This doesn’t prevent you plugging in lots of power efficient computers to drive huge data intensive operations, with the environmental damage still happening. The time has come for new regulations that get to the root cause of the problem by requiring energy efficiency to be baked into the heart of software.