The media is fond of quoting claims that the internet will soon be using more power than the airline industry, that it will consume half of all the electricity produced or that two Google searches release as much CO2 as boiling a kettle of water.
The Google search myth arose from a Times article in January 2009 which said that "a typical search generates about 7g of CO2. Boiling a kettle generates about 15g".
On the broader issue, the amazing estimates of the amount of electricity that the internet supposedly uses stem from a 1999 article in Forbes magazine revealingly titled "Dig More Coal – the PCs Are Coming". The article claimed that the internet was then accounting for 8% of all electricity use with the total used by all computers (including the internet) amounting to 13%. Highly detailed studies by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory show that he actual figures at that time were less than 1% for the internet and about 3% for all computers.
Whether the authors of the original Forbes article really intended to encourage the digging of more coal or not, their figures are used by coal lobbyists, such as the Greening Earth Society to argue that "while many environmentalists want to substantially reduce coal use in making electricity, there is no chance of meeting future economically-driven and Internet-accelerated electric demand without retaining and expanding the coal component."
As to the growth in power needed for the internet, it is obviously true that the number of computers and the use of the internet is continuing to grow rapidly. On the other hand, efficiency is also improving rapidly.The amount of power required to per instruction is halving every 18 months. According to Google’s
to efficiency. For example, in the United States between 1996 and 2009, the energy consumed per dollar of GDP fell by about 28% – much of this due to the use of computers and the internet. At the same time, parts of the economy, such as music and books, are becoming digital. It is estimated that delivering music over the internet, rather than on a CD, reduces the greenhouse gas produced by between 40 and 80%.
If these efficiency improvements are factored in, use of the internet is actually significantly reducing electricity consumption.
The only way that the internet could consume more electricity than the airline industry would be for physical air travel to be replaced by virtual travel over the internet – which would not be a bad thing for the environment!