Speaking in advance of the climate summit in Copenhagen, Rajendra Pachauri, the United Nation’s leading climate scientist, warned that Western society must enact radical changes and reform measures if it is to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told the Observer that Western society urgently needs to develop a new value system of “sustainable consumption.” The Nobel Prize winner stated, “Today we have reached the point where consumption and people’s desire to consume has grown out of proportion.” “The reality is that our lifestyles are unsustainable.”
Pachauri offered a wide-ranging proposal—including legal requirements, economic disincentives, and government subsidies—to lead Western society toward a more sustainable future. Among Pachauri’s suggestions is that hotels be held accountable for the energy use of their guests. The energy consumed by guests in hotels could be metered and then charged to guests’ bills. Pachauri’s proposal also includes measures to regulate travel by land and air. For instance, Pachauri argues that automobile travel could be “curbed” through pricing schemes that discourage the use of private transportation. Likewise, Pachauri suggests that governments tax air travel to encourage citizens to travel by rail—a mode of transportation that is significantly lower in cost and environmental impact.
Travel and tourism are but one feature of an increasingly unsustainable Western lifestyle. As the Internet becomes an indispensable feature of modern life, the costs and environmental impact associated with Internet usage is on the rise. According to recent estimates, there are over 1.5 billion people online around the world. As a result, the Internet’s energy footprint is growing at a rate of more than 10 percent each year. As the Net’s appetite for electricity grows, Internet companies like Google are having a hard time managing the costs associated with delivering Web pages, video, audio, and data files. This situation not only threatens the bottom line of Web firms, but may compromise the long-term viability of the Internet. According to Subodh Bapat, vice president of Sun Microsystems, a leading manufacturer of computer servers, “In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the Internet . . . we need to rein in the energy consumption.”
Energy consumption associated with Western lifestyles has been linked with melting glaciers around the world. Dr. Shresth Tayal of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India’s leading environmental institute, selected three of approximately eighteen thousand glaciers in the Himalayas as benchmarks to measure the rate of the glaciers’ retreat. According to Dr. Tayal, the glaciers, which feed rivers across India and China, providing fresh water to more than two billion people during the dry season, are disappearing at an alarming rate. As Dr. Tayal bluntly assessed in the Times, “The glacier is dying.” Tayal’s findings support the contention made in 2007 by the IPCC that glaciers could disappear by 2035. The IPCC warns that a shortage of fresh water will cause “famine, water wars and hundreds of millions of climate change refugees.”
Climate change is also taking a toll on the quality of Alaska’s marine waters, where cooler oceans absorb and hold more gas than do warmer waters. Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, found that Alaskan waters are turning acidic from the absorption of greenhouse gases. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to ocean acidification, as nearly 30 percent of greenhouse gases emitted by humans gets absorbed into the ocean each year. According to Mathis, the same qualities that make Alaskan waters some of the most productive in the world—cold, shallow depths and an abundance of marine life—make them especially vulnerable to acidification. Mathis notes that ocean acidification stunts the growth, development, and reproductive health of some species of crabs and fish. This situation has enormous implications, not only for marine life in Alaskan waters, but for the broader Alaskan ecosystem, and the state’s $4.6 billion fishing industry.
Despite growing evidence that Western lifestyles contribute to global climate change, it may take a generation before the new value system Pachauri calls for takes hold. Nevertheless, Pachauri believes that young people will recognize the need to adopt some of the radical changes he recommends. “I think they will be far more sensitive than adults, who have been corrupted by the ways we have been following for years.”
Update by Bobbie Johnson
It is nearly impossible to calculate the impact the Internet has had on the world over the decades since it was first created. With more than a quarter of the global population now online, it has become a central part of the lives of millions of people around the planet, revolutionizing everything from communication and retail to our day-to-day social lives along the way.
This growth, combined with the power demands of Internet data centers, convinced me that more attention needed to be paid to the issue. After all, the most voracious of the Internet’s energy demands are the parts of the Internet that are usually hidden from the sight of ordinary Web surfers. My story, titled “Web Providers Must Limit Internet’s Carbon Footprint, Say Experts,” was largely intended to highlight the question of the Internet’s energy footprint, and to act as a corrective to some of the misinformed and confusing reports published in the past. The article elicited a direct response from Google—somewhat unusual for an issue of this kind—but the mainstream press remained fairly ambivalent to it, preferring to focus on the next big product launch or another overhyped Internet start-up.
Experts suggest that the Internet’s energy footprint continues to grow at least 10 percent each year, and major companies continue to build vast new server farms at a rapid clip. Indeed, just upriver from Google’s plant in The Dalles, Oregon, Amazon is hard at work on a $100 million, one hundred thousand-square-feet monster of a data center. And Facebook, now the world’s second-largest Web site, announced in January that it was breaking ground on its first custom data center—also in Oregon. It will, surely, be the first of many.
And on top of this expansion comes the even more chilling realization that this is not a problem that can be solved merely through national regulation or even agreement between the Internet’s most powerful companies. Thanks to the speedy expansion of the Internet population in countries like China and India, hordes of corporations are building new data centers that have fewer rules intended to keep their power usage in check.
It’s a looming crisis everywhere—and despite the valiant attempts on all sides to ignore the issue, our desire to be more connected than ever means that the Internet’s appetite for electricity is not a problem that will be going away any time soon.
James Randerson, “Western Lifestyle Unsustainable, Says Climate Expert Rajendra Pachauri,” Guardian, November 29, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/29/rajendra-pachauri-climate-warning-copenhagen.
Bobbie Johnson, San Francisco bureau, “Web Providers Must Limit Internet’s Carbon Footprint, Say Experts,” Guardian, May 3, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/may/03/internet-carbon-footprint.
Jeremy Page, “Scientist’s Himalayan Mission Provides Unwelcome Proof: Glaciers Are Dying,” Times (UK), December 5, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/copenhagen/article6945249.ece.
Dan Joling, “Global Warming Threatens Alaska’s Waters with Acidification,” AlterNet, September 9, 2009, http://www.alternet.org/water.