Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. One of the main drivers of climate change is carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Digital transformation has played a pivotal role in the global fight against climate change and reducing CO2 emissions. But one cannot ignore the fact that the Internet causes around 4% of global emissions, which is more than the airline industry, and it is growing by around 5% per year (ICT, United Nations 2022). Digital device usage, production and data transfer, result in greater CO2 emissions than one may anticipate. The term “digital carbon footprint” is used to summarise these emissions.
Although it is simple to imagine the internet and the digital world as an abstract and intangible realm, the infrastructure that makes them possible is very much tangible and has substantial demands from the environment. One of the main sources of digital CO2 emissions is the energy required to power and cool data centres. These facilities house servers and other equipment that are used to store, process, and transmit data over the internet. The energy needed to power and cool these data centres is often generated from burning fossil fuels, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere. The CO2 footprint of the digital sector is complex and multifaceted.
By 2030, data volumes will skyrocket, and data will track and affect everyday interactions, but how we use that data will be heavily influenced by the cost of storing and processing that data. By 2025, 175 zettabytes of fresh data will be produced annually, up from 33 zettabytes in 2018, according to the IDC. The amount of energy needed to store and analyse the data will rise along with the volume of data. How much exactly is the question. The best-case scenario is that by 2030, Information & Communication Technology would account for 8% of the global electricity demand, up from 2% in 2020.
Current approaches to reducing energy usage focus on improving the hardware: better data centre energy management, improved electronics that provide more processing power for less energy, and compression techniques that use less bandwidth as media files are transmitted across networks. As India moves forward towards complete digital transformation there will be a need for efficient storage strategies as data centres are energy hogs. They can never be shut off, and their racks of servers are constantly shuffling and analysing data, even creating redundant copies. The cooling requirements are immense, as all of these equipment generates extreme amounts of heat. According to an IDC study, just 32% of the data that businesses have access to is used globally; the remaining 68% aren’t even looked at. A good headstart as we step into the absolute digital future can be: 1. Eliminating any unused dark data should be regular practice. 2. Deduplication software is another tool that businesses can use to get rid of multiple copies of files, databases, and other items. 3. Use a large array of idle discs, a strategy that saves energy by allowing a group of disc drives to enter a low-power mode while not in use.
One of the G20’s task forces agenda focuses on the common Digital Future. The sustainable development goals for 2030 agenda shall also consider the need for better data storage strategies as we move ahead into the accessible Digital Public Infrastructure.
The CO2 footprint of the digital sector is a significant and growing contributor to global CO2 emissions. Many organisations in the digital sector are already making a concerted effort to transition to renewable energy sources, and this trend is likely to continue in the coming years. However, there are steps that need to be taken to reduce this overflow of data and organisations will have to handle the data more efficiently. According to a report by CRISIL, the market for data centres in India is predicted to double, from 870 MW in the current fiscal year to 1,700-1,800 MW by 2025. If nothing is done, as digitalisation picks up speed, data’s ravenous demand for energy will only continue to expand. Organisations cannot stop producing or storing data in the current environment, they should rather make substantial use of their data. Understanding the data, where it is kept, and how it is used is the first step.
Chandni Jain is an Art Director and Product Designer. Twitter: @ichandnijain Instagram