Greening our digital lives

On its 50th anniversary, we contemplate how Earth Day is becoming more digital.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Kicked off in 1970, the initiative aimed to raise awareness of the amount of damage done to Earth as a by-product of human activity. Half a century later, we have gained significant awareness about the physical and chemical impacts we make on our planet, their sources, and their consequences.

At the same time, we have a lot more work to do. Humankind’s energy consumption continues to grow, with electronics being one of the factors affecting this growth, and in particular, inefficient information processing causing excess energy consumption.

Computers and their energy consumption have come a long way since the 1970s. But, at the same time, they have also become far more numerous. More than 3.5 billion personal computers have been shipped since that time, with approximately 2 billion still in operation as of 2014. Add more than 6 billion smartphones to the mix and there you have it: The number of actively used computing devices far exceeds the number of people known to live on our planet. And we didn’t even mention the IoT, which is even more populous.

These devices, or, to be more precise, their owners, are generating zettabytes of data every year. That includes such things as nearly 100 million Instagram photos per day, half a million tweets per minute, and 40,000 Google searches per second.

How much energy does storing and transferring all that data require? It’s actually very hard to calculate, but we can estimate it — conservatively — using the energy that data centers consume, which is to say the energy spent on storing information and transferring it to and from consumer devices. That’s more than 200 terawatt-hours, or about the annual energy consumption of a medium-size country.

That’s a very rough estimate, but it gives us a scale. The real energy consumption of all digital devices is much greater than that estimate, of course. And you can add to it some examples of very inefficient energy use. For example, the Bitcoin mining network alone consumed nearly 67 terawatt-hours of electricity in its peak year, 2018. Knowing that led us to an investigation of how much energy the world might save by merely blocking Web-mining attacks. Turns out we have prevented the emission of approximately 800 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — so far.

Eight hundred tons may not sound like very much on a global scale, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg; mining attacks are hardly the only source of undesired computational activity. In fact, in 2019 their share dropped to about 1.37%, whereas blocked URLs accounted for 25.45% of the total 2.8 billion malicious objects Kaspersky products repelled.

Behind every malicious URL is a website that needs hosting (and energy to power the servers that host it) as well as computational power to view the site on users’ devices, which also consume energy. So, every instance of a blocked malicious URL saves a tiny bit of energy, and those tiny bits add up.

We are only beginning to investigate how different types of malicious objects affect the energy consumption of their host devices, and how that adds up on a global scale, but we can already give you a couple of ideas to lower your own contribution to this obviously excessive carbon emission:

  • Enable Web antivirus, so that it filters out malicious and phishing pages.
  • Keep in mind that the energy impact of a security solution running is lower than that of a missed infection, as our initial studies have shown.
  • Try to lower your company’s IT carbon footprint by optimizing it — if every business in the world slashed their IT energy consumption by 10%, they would free up enough energy to power a small country. If you’re ready to do so — check out our blogpost on other green IT practices and implement them if you can.

Earth Day is all about awareness. The goal of this post is to make you aware of the scale of IT energy consumption and some less-than-obvious ways to lower it. The more aware we are, the more we can do to save our planet.