Your Snapchats Are Killing the Planet

Written by Joe Kozlowicz on Wednesday, December 9th 2015 — Categories: Green Data Center

Person taking Snapchat of a LeafSnapchats themselves are actually pretty small fish in the world of mobile data, with images using just tens of kilobytes and videos about 2 MB. But combined, social media activity and streaming media account for an insane amount of data use, which in turn has a heftier environmental impact than you might think. If current trends continue, a family of four will have the same CO2 emissions from their combined cellular data as they will from the family minivan within 3 years.

The electricity at stake isn’t simply charging your phone: when you send that Snap of your cat falling off the counter (which is admittedly pretty hilarious), it’s beaming over various paths through wireless networks that use a ton of energy to a data center that uses a ton of energy and back to those dozens of other phones.

Social media isn’t the only abuser of data, it’s just one of the biggest. With streaming video, streaming music, social media use, web browsing, e-mail, and more, suddenly your cell bill is getting pretty high. One study from 2014 pegged the average data use in the United States at 1.6 GB per month.

And it isn’t just hitting your wallet, thanks to now common data overage fees. It’s also consuming energy.

A low end estimate from a Bell Labs study pegs the energy consumed by mobile data traffic at 0.2 kWh per GB, while on the higher end, mobile trade organization GSMA estimated data traffic at 19 kWh per GB.

If we split the difference and say that mobile data consumes around 9 kWh per GB, that 1.6 GB per month adds up to 172 kWh in a yearFor comparison, a clothes dryer used for 1 hour, once per week, will consume 145 kWh in a year, according to an EPA calculator.

172 kWh per year is about 372 pounds of CO2 emissions, assuming coal was burned to generate that electricity. That doesn’t seem so bad—after all, the EPA reports that an average vehicle emits nearly 10,000 pounds of CO2, so your cell phone is less than 4% of the environmental impact.

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Meanwhile, a recent Cisco study predicts that overall mobile data traffic will increase from 2.5 exabytes per month in 2014 to 25 exabytes per month in 2019, a 1000% increase.

That doesn’t mean that your iPhone use will increase by 1000%, as most of the increase will be in developing countries. But Cisco added that individual mobile data use could increase from around 2 GB per month (including tablets and other devices besides your phone) to 11 GB in 2019. At 11 GB per month, emissions jump up to 2,508 pounds of CO2 annually. Multiply that out by four people, and our family of four is suddenly emitting as much as a car just from their cell phone use!

Ultimately, data centers are a relatively small contributor to the overall consumption here. The majority is actually from the network infrastructure itself, as data centers at this scale are generally very efficient and have a much easier upgrade process than miles of cabling and hundred foot tall broadcast towers.  That doesn’t mean our industry doesn’t have a role to play, though, and the same goes for your own individual consumption. It’s impossible to avoid our digital lives, but remember that your cell battery isn’t the only energy being consumed when you’re binging Netflix on the go.

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