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Your Yearly Facebook Usage Has A Lower Carbon Footprint Than A Latte

The company is aiming to serve its 2 billion users with 50% renewable energy by 2018.

When Facebook announced yesterday that it had passed 2 billion active users, it was a watershed moment for the world’s largest social network. With a global population of 7.51 billion people, that means 26.6% of all humans are regular Facebook users.

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That is a whole lot of users. And when all the energy used to serve those people plus Facebook’s own internal usage is added together, the company accounted for a carbon footprint of 718,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016.

But break it down to a per-user level, Facebook says, and the annual carbon footprint is just 299 grams of carbon dioxide, less than the 340 grams it takes to make a medium latte, or the 355 grams required to boil a pot of tea. And those numbers have been steady since at least 2011, according to Bill Weihl, Facebook’s director of sustainability.

In other words, while the total carbon footprint of the Facebook user base is substantial, we individual users don’t consume a lot of energy.

“In terms of what people’s daily lives are like,” says Weihl, “we are a very carbon-efficient service.”

That’s true, especially when compared to enterprise companies, says Jonathan Koomey, a lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences. “Typically, Facebook [is] much more efficient than the traditional enterprise computing data centers,” he says. “Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, they all tend to have solved, or are well on the way to solving, the high inefficiencies that exist in the data center.”

One way those companies have achieved that is through the economies of scale that their large user bases afford them. Another, Koomey says, is to figure out ways to reduce the energy overhead of cooling, energy distribution, and other functions. In fact, he adds, large cloud-based internet services like Facebook and its major competitors can be up to eight times more efficient than their enterprise counterparts–in part due to substantially higher utilization of the computing systems, and the resulting reduction in overhead.

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Increasingly green since 2009

Facebook has been working to be energy-efficient since at least 2009, Weihl says, explaining that since then, the company has been designing its own data centers, as well as its own servers. The result, he says, is that the “entire stack”—from the company’s data center buildings, to the cooling systems, to the battery backups, the server racks, and the storage devices—were all designed to be energy- and water-efficient.

That, along with the Open Compute Project, a 200-plus-member organization started by Facebook that collaborates on the design of efficient, sustainable computing infrastructure, is meant to help the internet industry as a whole create as little a carbon footprint as possible. OCP members include Google, Microsoft, Apple, AT&T, Nvidia, and others.

Working together on the development of data center servers has helped drive the entire internet industry, Weihl argues, and has made every company more efficient, and more sustainable. “We can move much faster and further,” he says, “working with others than we can ourselves.”

A big element of Facebook’s efforts has been working toward the use of 100% sustainable energy across its data center network. Each new facility is meant to be entirely green, and that’s been true for the last seven to come online, Weihl says.

All told, the company hit 43% renewable energy usage in 2016, and is aiming for 50% by next year.

But even as Facebook brings more 100% green-energy data centers online, that doesn’t necessarily mean the per-user carbon footprint will go down. That’s because multiple existing facilities are still using non-renewables, even as the data demands of users uploading and downloading huge numbers of high-resolution photos, videos, and, increasingly, 360-degree content rises.

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“The energy footprint per user may go up as we add more complexity and as we add more complicated services,” Weihl explains, “but the carbon footprint per user should not, and should [eventually] start to come down.”

It’s good business

While Koomey isn’t familiar with Facebook’s emissions metrics, he notes that Weihl’s “really a top-notch fellow and he knows his stuff. [Facebook has] made serious efforts to reduce their emissions all through their supply chain. Them and other companies.”

Koomey also says there are two main business cases for companies like Facebook to reduce emissions. One, of course, is that it’s cheaper to lock in long-term contracts with renewable energy producers than it is to face the vagaries of the fossil fuel-based power market.

That’s exactly the raison d’être of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a consortium of more than 100 companies, including Facebook, that is seeking to “knock down [the] obstacles” to cheaper renewable energy, Weihl explains.

The other big reason for going green is for PR purposes, Koomey suggests.

“They’re doing this so they can put the environmental issues behind them,” Koomey says. “If a customer comes to them and says, ‘I’m concerned about all this electricity usage,’ number one, [they can say] it’s not that big, and number two,” a lot of it is renewable.

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“They can put the issue behind them and not get bogged down in the carbon problem,” adds Koomey. “It’s a good business risk reduction strategy.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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