When you think of sustainability, do you think of travelling by train rather than by plane? Recycling everything from plastic containers to consumer electronics? Do you think of saving paper, petrol, and related costs by doing business online?
It may come as a surprise that technology is among the top ten polluting industries, with a carbon footprint estimated at over one billion tons. In 2018 research from the On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030 report estimated that the technology industry could use 20% of the electricity produced, and emit up to 5.5% of the world's carbon emissions.
An increasing proportion of the energy consumption is related to an unquenchable thirst for data. The many data centres, with thousands of servers in each data centre, use an incredible amount of energy to power the servers and cool them. It’s no coincidence that behemoth organisations such as Meta, Alphabet, and Amazon have all set up data centres in Lulea, a Swedish city just south of the Arctic Circle. The move is undoubtedly designed to be most cost-efficient, as the weather conditions mean less power is needed to keep the servers at optimum operating temperatures. Building “green” data centres is a way of benefiting the organisation at the same time as lightening their environmental footprint. Digital pollution associated with data centres, however, goes beyond the use of renewable energy to benefit the environment.
The collection of data is the reason that all of these data centres exist. Yet CIO magazine estimates that 75% of the data that enterprises collect remains unused. According to Forbes, companies collect and store reams of data that isn’t necessarily organised or catalogued, nor is it used to gain the business insights for which it was intended, though it may be sold – and replicated in the process. The amount of data, and the data debt that goes with it, proliferates.
The correlation to the amount of data gathered is the amount of data generated. The global amount of internet traffic is experiencing exponential growth. Internet searches account for global emissions equivalent to the world's air traffic. Each search for a web address generates the equivalent of 0.8g CO2, which rises to 10g after the search returns five results.
A year's browsing of the Web by the average user is the same as travelling 1,400 km by automobile. An image-heavy home page of a typical online newspaper generates 54g per visit. And streaming all those YouTube and TikTok videos add up to a hefty carbon weight by the end of the year. Gerry McGovern, a well-known content strategy consultant and author of World Wide Waste, has made it his business to understand the pollution effect of data. He comments that internet traffic is growing at an astounding rate of 25%, which would require the planting of over 500 million trees to be planted to absorb the CO2 that is generated. McGovern not only discusses the Big Bang of Big Data, he fills out the context to understand how our practices might change to reduce the amount of digital waste we produce.
Contributing to digital sustainability
Think global, act local has never been as pertinent as it has now. We may not be able to prevent the building of data centres, but we can take advantage of any opportunities that come our way to reduce our own carbon footprints.
Of course, there are many aspects to sustainability. A number of these areas, encapsulated under the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) umbrella cover everything from climate change, working conditions, and a range of corporate policies. All of these areas need to be addressed for an organisation to get a good GRI rating. That certainly indicates that we should contribute by examining our digital practices. The imperative to reduce our digital waste is certainly an important aspect of the overall carbon footprint.
Ways to reduce our carbon footprint
We can’t fix what we don’t understand, as the saying goes, so our first step is to become aware of where our carbon footprint is heaviest and where opportunities exist to work towards a sustainable future. In the next article on this topic, we look at a variety of ways that we can reduce our digital footprint, particularly when it comes to our websites and internal digital workspaces.
Rahel Bailie, Executive Consultant EMEA