Data Centers: ‘Carbon Processing Units’ and Green Solution Providers?
Do data centres & ICT stand in the way of global environmental goals, or are they already enabling our green future? Derek Webster says it’s time to look at the facts
By Derek Webster
“When I went to school, I had books and access to a library. My children went to school with laptops and access to the Internet”, is a favourite line I use as often as I can to demonstrate the effect of the ‘Digital Revolution’.
In 1989, when the World Wide Web was given free to the world, the global population was 5.2bn and annual global fossil CO2 emission stood at 22.3 gigatonnes. 30 years later, with the internet covering almost every inch of the globe, 7.7bn of us live on Earth and global emissions stand at 33 gigatonnes.
Even though these are significant and startling rises of 48% and 35%, respectively (2017 & 2018 saw sharp CO2 declines according to the IEA), taken together they illustrate a 10% per capita CO2 reduction over that period – and carbon dioxide accounts for 65% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. When dissecting the impact of the Digital Revolution on the environment, Population, energy source and use are key.
Digitalisation is transforming the value chain with increased efficiency, productivity, quality and competitiveness. But the digital revolution has also affected social, economic and behavioural changes, with significant carbon, environmental and sustainability impacts.
ICT has also revolutionised the collecting and processing of green data, helping us understand the changing world we live in. Conversely, information about how much ICT & digitisation growth has helped, in part, off-set our carbon use, is rare. This article will not answer that macro question. But it will provide insight in terms of global CO2 usage, while acknowledging that 38% of the world’s population are not internet users (as of June 2020).
Digital infrastructure and particularly data centres are often compared to the aviation industry. Aircraft reach actual clouds while data centres are ‘the cloud on the ground’; where the silk threads of the web – fibre and connectivity – connect.
The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that aviation is responsible for about 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change (change caused by human activity). Airline pollution, including CO2 and water vapour at high-altitude, impacts global warming more than pollution on the ground.
As a comparable, according to the International Energy Agency, data centres consumed less than 1% of global electricity demand in 2019 and, as of 2018, were responsible for 0.3% of global carbon emissions. In 2019, data transmission networks were responsible for circa 1% of energy consumed globally.
Even though digital workloads have increased 550% since 2010, power demand has levelled in the last 6 years. Aviation on the other hand saw a 21% rise in CO2 over the last 4 years to 2018, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Other sources show a similar picture. Global e-sustainability (GeSI) stated that the ICT sector was responsible for 2.3% of emissions in 2020. The GeSI figure in 2015 was 1.4-2%.
The aviation industry represents around 3.6% of global GDP. The digital economy is 22.5% of global GDP according to Oxford Economics, while the UNCTAG 2019 report states that the Digital Economy ranges from 4.5% to 15.5% as a proportion of countries’ GDPs.