Why it matters: Facebook announces goal to unfriend coal and run on renewable energy

Greenpeace has been running what at first sight (I have to admit) seemed to me a somewhat diversionary campaign to get Facebook to run its servers with renewable energy rather than coal. Given the enormous pressures the planet’s habitats and wildlife are facing, does it matter what a social media company uses to power its computers? Actually, it really does.

For those of us who clearly remember a world pre-Facebook (and even more clearly a world pre-computer) it’s difficult to understand just how much power IT companies like Facebook consume sending and receiving information. And it’s a simply mind-boggling amount. Facebook only launched in 2004, but in 2010 it announced that it had 500,000,000 subscribers – that’s 1 in every 13 people on the entire planet – with over 250 million of them (over 50%) logging in every day. According to an article in early 2011 on Digital Buzz earlier this year, “Over 700 Billion minutes a month are spent on Facebook, 20 million applications are installed per day and over 250 million people interact with Facebook from outside the official website on a monthly basis, across 2 million websites…in just 20 minutes on Facebook over 1 million links are shared, 2 million friend requests are accepted and almost 3 million messages are sent.”

All this information/data is sent and received by servers, powerful computers with differing roles but all of which basically handle information and distribute that information across networks (eg the network created when we log on to Facebook or Google etc from our home or work computer). In other words when we log and send an email, a request, a message or whatever to Facebook (or Google, or ITunes) a server is involved. Facebook apparently has around 50,000 of them. Google (which has never revealed how many servers it uses) is thought to use almost a MILLION because of the resources needed to index and ‘understand’ the vast amount of data it collects as it trawls the world’s websites. And servers consume energy to run: according to Greenpeace, Wikipedia and others servers were responsible for around 2% of all energy consumption in the United States (and a further 2.5% of United States energy consumption was used by cooling systems required to cool the servers!). That consumption will climb steeply as more use is made of cloud-computing where information is not stored on our own computers but external servers which need to be contacted every time we want to retrieve information. It’s estimated that if the ‘cloud’ was a country it would globally be the 5th largest in terms of electricity use!

That sort of consumption, with its associated emissions, do matter very much indeed. And given that we’re way past changing our surfing habits now (I of course ‘contacted’ Google several times writing this and checked the Talking Naturally Facebook page this morning – and I used a server to post this) then it does make good sense to tackle the energy use from the provider’s end. Of course, computers will get more energy efficient as will hopefully the world’s servers, but if every major IT company across the world could be persuaded to ‘unfriend’ coal it would have to make a difference to the world’s ever-climbing CO2 emissions – which would be good news for all of us.


Email from Greenpeace, 14 Dec 11:

As I write this email there are almost 1m people on Facebook who have ‘liked’ the Greenpeace International page there. But this message is about something Facebook-y that’s much more exciting: After 20 months of pressure from you, our supporters, Facebook today announced its goal to unfriend coal and run on clean, renewable energy.

We did it! Thank you!

Since the campaign began in February 2010, hundreds of thousands of you from all over the world have urged the social media mammoth to go green by using Facebook itself, photo-protests, music videos, petitions and events at Facebook offices from Dublin to Palo Alto. We even set a Guinness World Record for the most comments on a Facebook post!

Have a look at the campaign timeline here

The company has agreed to work with Greenpeace to promote clean energy, encourage major utilities to develop renewable energy generation, and develop programmes that will enable Facebook users to save energy and engage their communities in clean energy decisions.

You made this possible! And If we can make Facebook go green, why stop there?

The amount of electricity used by major IT companies to power their energy-draining data centres already represents 2 percent of all US demand and, with the growth of cloud-computing, it is set to triple by 2020.

To cut their carbon footprint, power hungry IT companies like Apple, Microsoft and Twitter need to follow Facebook’s lead and drive a green energy revolution in the industry.

It is time to tell these companies that if they don’t move towards clean energy solutions, they could be next in line.

You can tweet to them from the Unfriend Coal page

Today’s announcement is a testament to your actions! Other IT companies need to do the same and we are calling on you for your support. It is you who can make it happen, a generous donation now will help keep this movement in action. Please donate today.

See you on the streets and on the internets,

Eoin Dubsky
Greenpeace International


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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