Column Bitcoin miners are using more energy than Argentina. Turning off your video camera during Zoom will save the planet. I am not a cat, I am a lawyer. Those who laud the transformational power of IT can't overlook that some of these transformations are very weird indeed.
Those three recent news stories – one of which you will have seen on your social media echo chamber – are all related. Let's start with CatLawyer, the legal eagle who couldn't turn off the magic Zoom filter which threatened to turn him into something Louis Wain might have painted just before an episode.
It's fun, but the technology behind it – mapping the movements of key face points to a model visage – could easily be the basis of extremely effective video compression. Nothing in the background of a video conference moves; once that's been transmitted to recipients, it should take no bandwidth. And if the clients all share the fake faces of the filter technology, then the only things that ever need to be transmitted are the vectors of the face model, which are a handful of numbers a second. You could Zoom over a dial-up modem, once the initial static data has been sent.
Obviously great news for those still on dial-up. Also great news, if you believe the numbers, for the planet. An academic study last month claimed that all our pandemic-induced video streaming and calling would push out more carbon by the end of the year than foresting the whole of England and Wales could soak up, and use more cooling water in data centres than the city of Los Angeles.
But if you turn your camera off, you'll save 96 per cent of the carbon output of a Zoom call, and watching in standard definition rather than HD saves 86 per cent. Remote controlled cat faces – or, more realistically, models of our own faces, so as not to frighten the judge – would do the same.
The trouble with all such claims is that the methodology is rarely robust. You don't believe them, and you're probably right. The study, for example, assumes that increased data transmission involves a proportionate linear growth in power consumption. Which it doesn't. Plug a power meter between your router and the mains, and watch a movie in HD. Then watch one in SD. You will not see an 86 per cent change.
Back-of-the-envelope calculations hereabouts suggest the actual energy cost of data, based on how much we pay for it as a whole, is less and probably a lot less than 5 per cent of an average household energy bill. Most energy in IT doesn't go in data transmission. Watching The Witcher in 4k is not killing the planet. Physics doesn't work like that.
Bitcoin power drain
Now, there is a lot to be said for maximising the efficiency of IT power usage. There is a lot to be said for penalising excessive usage. However much energy Bitcoin soaks up in being mined is too much – and with 65 per cent of Bitcoin mined in China with its 65 per cent coal-fired electricity, it's way too much. And here, as always, the problem is the solution.
Bitcoin is profitable to mine in part because of recent adoption by institutional entities such as PayPal and Mastercard. Its integration with the financial system – ironically, for such a libertarian lollipop – makes it attractive.
Very well, slap a carbon tax on Bitcoin transactions into, out of, and within the regulated financial environment. Tie that to the estimated mining emissions. Likewise with the rest of IT, which next to money and energy is the most precisely metered and monitored system on the planet. Data flows nowhere without something marking its passing.
You can't make policy on the back of finger-in-the-air studies, but you can on actual information. How much carbon does a terabit fart? Your router could tell you, with a few tweaks.
Data centres can be very carbon-efficient. Fast data links mean they can be built near to cheap renewables like hydro and wind. They need cooling, but the engineering for that is state of the art, and they can demonstrate their environmental impact if needed to a very fine degree. Send a packet to San Francisco from Chipping Sodbury, you can measure its time of flight and latency with simple tools. Why not however many picograms of carbon it has pooped out?
Extra expense for no benefit? Hardly. With a fine-grained understanding of power consumption and carbon emission, regulators get the knobs to push IT towards more sustainable energy usage as fast as possible without breaking anything. We perhaps don't understand how fast that can be. Singapore is set to get 20 per cent of its power from the world's largest solar and battery farm in Australia's sunny Northern Territories – over a 3GW cable 4,500km (2,800 miles) long, the same distance as London is from Dakar in sub-Saharan Senegal. Could the same economics work for European IT? Wouldn't it be better than relying on the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia?
IT could lead the way in demonstrating workable, measurable sustainability, and in the process invent the infrastructure for every other industry to use. In truth cat-faced lawyer eco-warriors do save energy, but nobody knows how much. When we do, we can make the right decisions, day after day, and repair the climate by the numbers.
We're in IT. We're good with numbers. Who else do you think can do it? ®