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How many gigabytes of data do you consume every month? In an era where accessing websites, downloading files and scrolling through social media feeds is second nature, we rarely consider how much data we are consuming, or its environmental cost. Researchers at Imperial College London, however, found that downloading just one gigabyte of data requires 200 litres of water. Water is needed to cool the massive data servers that search engines and websites, such as Amazon and Google, use to power their internet services. These facilities also consume electricity at an astonishing rate, with data centres accounting for 2% of the US’ annual power consumption. Meanwhile, data centres in China use as much electricity as Hungary and Greece combined

There are nearly 3 million data centres in the US alone, and a 2014 report from the US Department of Energy found that together, these data centres consume 165 billion gallons of water annually. To put this in context, the World Health Organization estimates that adults need roughly 5 gallons of water a day to meet basic health and hygiene standards. This means that the annual water usage by data centres in the US could support over 90 million people’s basic water requirements for one year. 

Data centres require significant amounts of water due to a process known as “evaporative cooling.” In this process, water is used to cool the air around the server’s processing units. In the past, data centres used air conditioners, but this approach was energy intensive and expensive to operate. Otto Van Geet, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, observed the trade off between water and electricity usage, commenting,  “if the water consumption goes down, energy consumption goes up and vice versa.”

Emma Weisbord, an officer at the International Water association, noted that the water required to support cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin also “cannot be ignored.” One estimate found that Bitcoin’s annual energy consumption exceeded that of countries like Switzerland and Kuwait. Cooling and powering cryptocurrency servers is a water-intensive process, with Bitcoin alone requiring up to 411 billion gallons of water per year. 

You might also like: Are Cryptocurrencies Harming the Environment?

Much of this water is diverted from water scarce communities, particularly in the American South-West. Research from the Illinois Institute of Technology found that data centres in the US are often established in small rural towns, many of which already suffer from water scarcity. These small towns have to make trade-offs between the economic development data centres generate and long-term water access. “With climate change, we are expected to have more prolonged droughts,” said Venki Uddameri, director of the water resources center at Texas Tech University. “These kinds of water-intensive operations add to the local stress.” 

In response to these concerns, some internet companies have tried to improve their water efficiency. For example, Google is experimenting with using reclaimed wastewater and recycling water through its cooling systems multiple times. In 2013, Facebook opened a data centre in the Arctic Circle in Sweden to attempt to make use of naturally cooler temperatures. Similarly, Microsoft has been testing underwater data centres since 2016 to reduce the cost of cooling, as well as reach large populations located in coastal cities. 

In 2021 annual spending on data centres is expected to top USD$200 billion globally, a 6.2% increase from 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a 70% increase in internet usage, with Facebook alone recording a 27% increase in usage. Our internet consumption is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and the number of internet servers required to support our online presence will grow in tandem. 

Just writing this article required around twenty litres of water, and for every hour that you browse the internet reading similar pieces, you use about five. If you want to decrease your online environmental impact, try unsubscribing from unnecessary emails, limiting online movie streaming, reducing the amount of information you store in cloud systems, and choosing green web hosts. To truly limit the internet’s environmental cost, however, consumers will need to continue to demand accountability and ingenuity from the digital giants that profit from our reliance on the internet. 

Following its plans to shift forward the internal combustion-engine vehicles ban to 2035, the British government’s allocation of an additional £1.3bn to stimulate the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) has been lauded as a concrete step forward for sustainability efforts. Singapore is also powering forward with plans to make electric vehicles cheaper and more accessible. While necessary in moving towards a low-carbon future, this has also attracted criticism over its protracted timeline, while sparking debate on the purported benefits of electrifying transport. Moreover, EV adoption continues to be inhibited by concerns over affordability and practicalities of charging, which are especially pronounced in many developing countries.

Being the world’s first major economy to legislate a net-zero emissions target by 2050, the UK has adopted recommendations by the Committee on Climate Change to hasten the electrification of its vehicle fleet. Despite sales volumes of battery EVs having tripled from January 2019 to January 2020- from 1 334 to 4 054 vehicles, amidst an overall 7% decline in the domestic automotive industry– battery electric vehicles still have an overall UK market share of less than 3%. Since plenty of work remains, increased funding for EV purchase subsidies and development of charging infrastructure will go a long way in improving EV affordability while alleviating concerns of the battery going flat while driving- commonly referred to as ‘range anxiety’.

Meanwhile, hybrid sales climbed in the same period, with close to one in five cars sold in the UK either fully electric or using technology that includes both an engine and a battery.

The industry is facing conflict over the future of hybrid cars, as the government is planning a consultation with a view to banning them by 2035 alongside petrol and diesel vehicles; previous plans for a ban on petrol and diesel sales in 2040 allowed the sale of hybrid vehicles that can drive for a reasonable distance using only battery power. 

Singapore plans to phase out petrol vehicles by 2040, paving the way for greater adoption of EVs. Incentives for drivers to switch to EVs have been announced, including extension of the Vehicular Emissions Scheme to light commercial vehicles, rebates for early adoption and the revision of road taxes for qualifying vehicles. 

The global EV market will reach a tipping point by 2022 when the cost of owning an EV will be on par with internal combustion engine vehicles, but there will be a supply gap of almost 14 million EVs in 2030, marring Singapore’s efforts. 

The Republic has set the goal of creating 28 000 charging points, a significant addition to the current 1 600.

You might also like: The Growth of Renewable Energy: What Does the Future Hold?

how to move to electric vehicles
CO2 emissions of diesel vehicles compared to EVs in different European countries (Source: Transport & Environment).

Amidst the optimism surrounding cleaner transport, it is worth noting that environmental benefits from vehicle electrification are not reaped equally by all countries. While averting air pollution in urban centres, EVs are ultimately powered by electricity, which renders them only as clean as their energy source. Logically, countries which are heavily dependent on fossil fuels have comparatively little incentive to prioritise EV uptake, since investing in alternative energy generation yields more immediate returns in reducing environmental footprint. 

This notion renders EV uptake in the UK feasible; the proportion of its power generation mix made up by fossil fuels fell to a record low in December 2019, after renewable energy became the UK’s largest source of electricity, with wind and solar energy accounting for nearly 39% of its electricity in the quarter of 2019. Coal-fired power stations contributed 1% of the UK’s electricity in the same period. After two coal plants- Aberthaw B and Fiddler’s Ferry- close in March, the UK will have four coal-fired power stations. 

In regions (for example, much of ASEAN) where the automotive industry features prominently as an economic sector, it is challenging even for established EV manufacturers like Tesla to successfully enter the market, due to lack of brand recognition and reliable procurement chains. 

electric vehicles
Comparisons of electric vehicle sales in China, the US and the EU (Source: US Bureau of Economic Analysis, China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, International Council on Clean Transportation; put together by Earth.Org).

Without aggressive policy action by these countries to increase accessibility of electric vehicles to the general populace, it is inconceivable that smaller companies can attain the scale of production necessary to stimulate domestic original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) into rethinking their product lines. Specialising in electrification of two-wheeled vehicles could be a more effective way of catalysing regional-scale disruption. By focusing on transition towards public transport, these governments which currently appear as laggards in the EV race could end up as global leaders in sustainable transport in the decades to come. 

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been slated as the future of finance. However, are cryptocurrencies harming the environment? More light is being shed on their environmental impact as studies determine that each Bitcoin transaction consumes large amounts of electricity, a problematic finding as the world looks to make the shift towards green energy.

Since its first transaction in 2009, Bitcoin has soared in popularity and has been volatile at times. At the time of writing, a single Bitcoin costs USD 57 000. However, more concerning than its volatility is its energy consumption.  

How Does Bitcoin Work?

Bitcoin is regulated through a blockchain in which each transaction is tracked through a public ledger ranging across computers worldwide. This ‘mining’ process, which allows validated transactions to take place, is extremely energy-intensive; a single Bitcoin transaction could power the average US household for a month, with the Bitcoin network able to process about seven transactions per second.

Computers used to mine Bitcoin need to be high-powered enough to solve complex computational math problems, too complex to be solved by hand. The amount of Bitcoin released is halved every four years or so, making the currency more scarce and valuable over time but also more costly and time-consuming for miners to produce, affecting its energy consumption rates further.

Is Bitcoin Bad For the Environment?

Real-time figures provided by the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index show that Bitcoin accounts for 0.40% of the world’s total electricity consumption, and 0.34% of the world’s total electricity production, underscoring efforts to reduce the planet’s energy consumption and use of fossil fuels. Though the figure may seem small, it has a significant impact overall. To put these figures into perspective, the annual electricity consumption of Bitcoin is greater than the total energy required to power all the tea kettles in the UK for 29 years. Additionally, Bitcoin is just one of the thousands of cryptocurrencies currently in use.

Other cryptocurrencies, including Ethereum and Litecoin are continuing to grow in popularity, adding further pressure to the global energy consumption rate. As cryptocurrencies become more accessible to the general public, experts predict that the cryptocurrency industry will continue to expand, transforming the way we bank. 

As Bitcoin usage becomes more common, Digiconomist estimates that Bitcoin’s annual energy consumption has risen from 9.6 TWh in February 2017 to 73.2 TWh in January 2020. If Bitcoin was a country, it would be the 40th highest energy-consuming country in the world, ranking above Colombia and the Czech Republic. The annual carbon footprint of Bitcoin, 34.76 megatonnes of CO2, is comparable to that of Denmark. A single Bitcoin transaction consumes more energy than 100 000 Visa transactions

A fluctuating Bitcoin price, along with increases in computer efficiency, ‘slowed’ its energy footprint growth rate to 20% per month in 2017. If that trend continues, estimates suggest it could consume all the world’s electricity by January 2021. These estimates do not take illegal activity into account, suggesting that the energy consumption rate could be higher than predicted. 

Determining Bitcoin’s Environmental Impact

To determine energy consumption, researchers have relied on surveys, interviews and news reports, and have performed calculations based on network performances. Digiconomist’s figures are determined by the amount of mining revenue spent on electricity costs. However, determining the carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies is challenging as the total number of cryptocurrencies changes daily and they are untraceable. 

It is unknown whether electricity for Bitcoin mining is generated from fossil fuels or renewables. Coinshares, a cryptocurrency asset management and analysis firm, states that 74.1% of the electricity used by Bitcoin is generated from renewables, such as hydropower, making it ‘more renewable-driven than almost every other large-scale industry in the world’. 

However, many analysts dispute these claims; the University of Cambridge released a report in 2020 determining that only 39% of energy consumed by these mining facilities comes from renewable sources. 

The complex computing systems used by miners mean that they spend 60-80% of their revenue on electricity. Because of these relatively slim potential profit margins, Bitcoin mining often occurs in remote rural areas where electricity is cheaper. It is suggested that energy sources include but are not limited to Chinese coal and hydropower and Icelandic geothermal power.

Future of Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrencies may seem to be the future of finance and a worthwhile investment but it comes at a drastic cost. A report published by Nature Climate Change made an alarming statement that Bitcoin could alone produce enough CO2 emissions to push global warming above 2°C in less than three decades. 

To resolve this, on March 19 2021, 26 technology companies in Europe signed a pledge to develop “digital green solutions” to help the world tackle climate change by curbing carbon emissions and digitally transforming key economic sectors. At the same time, European nations also signed a pledge to support what they called “clean digital technologies.” Countries vowed to, among other things, build 5G and 6G networks while backing blockchain technology, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

As experts dispute the future of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, one thing is certain: if they are here to stay, global energy consumption will rise drastically. With the impact of the climate crisis worsening, the question of whether the benefits of cryptocurrencies outweigh their environmental costs should be considered. 

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