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Online data use pollutes the same as plastics and oil, academic warns


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CONSUMERS need to see online data usage as similar to single-use plastics and oil in its impact on climate and the environment, an expert has warned.

Dr Patrick Bresnihan called for a moratorium on data centres in Ireland until their rocketing energy demands can be met in more sustainable ways.

But he also said the public needed to understand that data could not be produced and consumed indefinitely without consequences.

“At the moment, data is made from fossil fuels because that’s how most of the energy to run data centres comes from,” the Maynooth University academic said.

“Our consumption of data is not natural and it’s not inevitable. It’s very much linked to the business models and activities of online platforms – Netflix, Twitter, Instagram.

“Their business models are geared towards us consuming more data. The same kind of points can be made about plastics companies and petroleum companies.”

Eirgrid has warned that the 70 data centres already operating in Ireland account for 11pc of national electricity demand.

When new data centres with approved electricity connections are added, they will make up almost 30pc of demand by 2030.

If all proposed centres with applications for connections are approved, their electricity use would rise to 70pc of national demand.

The Social Democrats will table a motion in the Dáil tomorrow seeking a pause on the granting of planning permission to new centres.

It comes as two more ‘amber alerts’ were issued this month to warn that the country’s electricity demand was close to outstripping supply.

Dr Bresnihan told the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee today he was in favour of a moratorium similar to Singapore, which paused data centre development until their energy needs could be met by renewables.

While Ireland prized itself on being a digital hub, he said the reputational damage from disrupting major industries with blackouts would be far greater than that caused by suspending permissions for data centres.

The committee also heard from a Canadian academic, Dr Kyla Tienhaara of Queen’s University Ontario, who said Ireland should back countries pushing for the EU to withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty.

The treaty enables energy companies to sue countries in the international Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) court for adopting policies or laws that reduce their profit-making potential.

Italy and the Netherlands are currently being sued for taking climate action measures to halt oil exploration and phase out coal respectively.

“If we are going to keep within 1.5-2 degrees of warming, as is the ambition of the Paris Agreement, governments will have to take measures to keep a certain portion of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” Dr Tienhaara said.

“Government measures that have direct impacts on foreign investors in the fossil-fuel sector, such as measures to limit extraction, transportation and combustion of coal, oil and gas, are very likely to be challenged.”

Dr Tienhaara say the treaty was no benefit to Ireland.

“States can only lose. They can not win. Cases can only come from investors so there are no benefits for states. For countries like Ireland with an excellent courts system, there is no need for ISDS.”

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