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Global IT companies are using polluting sources of energy such as coal to power a huge expansion in digital information held in data centres, environmentalists have claimed.
A report from Greenpeace predicted there would be a 50-fold increase in data such as pictures, music and movies which is stored in and accessed from "the cloud" by 2020.
The cloud relies on data centres containing thousands of computers storing information, which use large amounts of electricity, and the environmental group estimates that energy demand for the systems could increase by almost a fifth by the end of the year.
But while some companies are applying the same innovative approach to sourcing electricity as to technology, others were relying on traditional - and dirty - sources of energy, such as coal, to power much of their systems, Greenpeace claimed. In some areas, clusters of IT sector investment were driving demand for new coal and nuclear, Greenpeace said.
The report said that Yahoo and Google were leading the sector in prioritising access to renewable energy as they expanded cloud systems, while Facebook had committed to powering its platform with renewables, constructing its latest data centre in Sweden where it can be fully powered by clean energy.
But Greenpeace said some of the biggest companies, such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, were expanding their cloud systems without considering their energy sources and relying too much on dirty coal.
Leila Deen, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said there was a split between two groups of companies, with some pushing ahead with sourcing electricity from renewables, aware of the impact on the image of their brands if they were using fossil fuels, while others were not.
She said: "People will be surprised about these companies, about how they are ignoring this when we see them as green, and using the internet as green and low carbon. We are calling on Microsoft, Amazon and Apple to show us they are still amongst the world's most innovative companies and 'clean up the cloud'.
"They must commit to look for renewable energy sources as a key factor when deciding where to place their data centres, they should look to investment directly in renewable sources and they should follow the lead of Google and Yahoo in lobbying governments and energy companies to do the same. The IT sector has enormous potential to lead the world in clean energy solutions, if only they will think different on how they power the cloud."
Apple said it sought to procure renewable energy for its data centres and facilities around the world. Its office in Cork, Ireland, is one of several run on 100% renewable electricity.