HANOVER, Germany (AFP) — What do an avatar on Second Life and the average inhabitant of Brazil in the real world have in common? Incredibly, they both use the same amount of electricity.
It is perhaps not a fair example as the average virtual being in the online community is not active all the time, but the statistic does show that all that time the rich world spends online has an impact on the environment.
And how. Providing energy to work the Internet needs the equivalent of 14 power stations, which in turn cough out the same amount of harmful carbon dioxide emissions as the airline industry, research has estimated.
This does not even include all the emissions created by making PCs, mobile phones and PDAs and shipping them around the planet. If you add the energy required to recycle them -- not that that many are recycled -- the industry has quite a footprint.
It is with this in focus that CeBIT, the world's largest technology fair, opened its doors this week in Hanover, Germany with 5,500 exhibitors showing off the smartest, coolest -- and this year the greenest -- gadgets.
With oil and gas prices pushing up energy bills, a main motivation is also cutting down the costs for consumers and businesses.
IBM, for example, devoted large parts of its stand at CeBIT, which runs to March 9, to showing how its new servers use less energy.
Vast farms of servers made by IBM and others are used to power the Internet, and it is these gas-guzzling data centres of immense size and energy consumption that drive Second Life and indeed the entire Internet.
Siegfried Behrendt, a researcher at Berlin's IZT institute, calculates that downloading his daily newspaper uses the same amount of electricity as running a washing machine.
German IT firm Strato, meanwhile, reckons that looking for something on Internet search engine Google requires as much energy as an energy-efficient light-bulb uses in an hour.
This won't show up on your monthly electricity bill though, because most of the energy required for these actions takes place in a server somewhere on a data farm.
And consumption is growing. A study commissioned by US microchip maker AMD at Stanford University in the United States calculated that between 2000 and 2004 data farms' energy use doubled.
At this rate, in less than a quarter century the Internet will consume as much energy as the whole of humanity does today, Gerhard Fettweis from Dresden University in Germany believes.
Between now and 2010, "everything is possible. Either nothing changes, and the consumption of data centres grows 50 percent. Or real efforts are made, and a lowering of 50 percent is conceivable," Fettweis told AFP.
Real efforts were on show at CeBIT, raising hopes that innovation will find a way to lessen the IT industry's environmental impact.
Data centres produce a huge amount of heat but the rooms they are in also have to be kept cool to avoid overheating.
IBM -- which also operates server farms on behalf of other firms -- wants to capture that heat and use it to power air conditioning to keep things cool.
And software giant Microsoft has a data centre near Quincy in the United States -- right next to a hydro-electric plant, providing its servers with renewable energy.
Another solution is so-called virtualisation of servers, a technique whereby special software turns spare capacity on the server to function as multiple computers.
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