RE:THOUGHT

Climate, politics, campaign finance, media criticism

Out of sight, out of mind for carbon emissions?

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A new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting “How dirty is the cloud” looks at the massive, energy intensive data centers which are needed for remotely hosted (“cloud”) applications like Dropbox or Gmail. Many of those are powered with coal, the most carbon intensive of popular fuel types.

A fear I have is that as more and more computer services are remotely hosted in these data centers, people become less aware of the energy they’re using and less inclined to conserve. If you have to have a server running in your closet to power your applications, it’s pretty obvious they’re using a lot of energy. But when you access Gmail on your phone or computer, you just click a button and a magic email fairy serves up your data. Never mind that the fairy lives in a huge data center and feeds on coal.

This is just one example of a larger trend. Individuals in wealthy countries (which have the most climate pollution emissions) have had more distance put between their actions and climate pollution, as their countries have essentially outsourced their carbon-intensive industries to China and other less developed countries. As the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer writes:

A handful of countries, including Sweden, France and Belgium, have managed to become more carbon-efficient largely by using cleaner forms of power. The rest, however, seem to have largely decarbonized through the process of transforming into service economies and shifting their industrial and agricultural needs abroad.

This means that things are even gloomier than they seem and that even the modest successes that nations have had cutting climate pollution deserve a fat asterisk next to them. It seems to me that in the absence of a binding international climate agreement, that boosting clean energy sources is more effective than trying to impose limits on dirty energy as there will be carbon leakage and the “balloon effect.”

One possible improvement is carbon labeling, which has been piloted in the UK and other jurisdictions. This would at least require consumers’ ignorance to be willful. Small steps…

All in all, one more reason why a collective action problem like fighting climate change requires a collective (as in global) response.

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Written by rethoughtblog

April 19, 2012 at 2:56 am

Posted in climate, media

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