Ian Hodgkinson, Tom Jackson and Lisa Jackson presented their dark data calculator at the OECD Exploring 2023 Innovation Trends webinar in January 2023. In this blog, they are making the case for hidden carbon costs of digital technologies and the need for shining a spotlight on digital decarbonization.
Digital data generation is on the rise, with the increased use of smartphones wearables and sensors, cloud computing and big data technologies. However, this also means that we are using more energy to store and process this information, causing significant sustainability issues across the globe. Digitalization processes and digital data may not be obvious polluters, compared to well recognized contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and broader environmental pollution such as non-recyclable plastics, where the physical waste and the damage done are highly visible. But while we may not be able to touch or feel it, the impact of digital on the environment is real. And beyond being real, it is significant. The carbon cost of digital data needs to be publicly understood and, if we are to meet the ambitious climate targets, become a matter of priority for organizations and governments alike.
Digital data growth is rapidly expanding in size, with recent estimates suggesting that global data will exceed 180 zettabytes by 2025, which equates to more than 6.8 billion years of continuous high quality Netflix streaming. Key contributors to this growth not only include those sectors typically identified, such as manufacturing and finance, but other non-traditional data-intensive services such as those in the healthcare industry, which is expected to account for 36% of the total data volume by 2025.
For many years, digital data has been considered carbon neutral and this has driven the desire to store it all in the cloud. But is this really a sustainable approach? Recent insights on the energy consumption of data centres and data transmission networks are shedding new light on the impact of data generation, processing and storage on the environment through high levels of CO2 production. This negative impact is magnified drastically by the day-to-day digital practices of organizations that encourage data duplication, single-use knowledge, and poor information governance. Shining a spotlight on such data practices is at the heart of the digital decarbonization movement outlined in our recent article in the Journal of Business Strategy, recognized by the as a critical future focus for accelerating the path to net zero.
The impact on the environment
The role of digital is often considered in terms of how it can assist decarbonization. For example, the Think Tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) discusses digital innovations for clean energy systems, such as the role of vehicle electrification and shift towards a digital grid that can accommodate intermittency of renewable energy sources; similarly, Atos has highlighted the important role data and digital technologies are playing in the drive towards achieving net-zero, citing virtualization and cloud computing as mechanisms to reduce energy consumption. While undoubtedly digital innovations can play, and are playing, a critical role in reducing CO2 production, there is an equally important need to account for the negative environmental impacts these very same digital processes are having. So, while many governments across the globe are rightly recognizing the beneficial role of digital technologies for their decarbonization agendas, the impact of digitalization and growth in data are not being considered in government decarbonization policies as contributors to increasing CO2, which is an issue for net-zero ambitions.
Early estimates by EY suggest digitalization is already responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This estimate is likely to expand side-by-side the global digital data growth trajectory and associated energy demands. In fact, in 2022 the energy supply sector was recognized by the United Nations as the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 35% of total global emissions. To provide an illustration of the relationship between digital data and energy consumption, let’s take the “cloud”, which is made up of many data centres throughout the world and contains millions of servers that both process and store data and manage IT systems. The IEA reports that “global data centre electricity use in 2021 was 220-320 TWh, or around 0.9%-1.3% of the global final electricity demand.” This is equivalent to powering roughly 20-30 million US households for a year. Furthermore, going beyond energy consumption alone reports suggest that data centres are responsible for 2.5% of all human-induced carbon dioxide. In other words, they have a greater CO2 footprint than the aviation industry (2.1%). This raises questions as to whether all of the data generated on a global level is actually needed. Indeed, up to 60% of the data stored may be “dark data”, which Gartner defines as information assets organizations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purposes. The OECD likewise has called for governments to account for the environmental implications of data infrastructure. In the OECD Good Practice Principles for Data Ethics report, the organisation particularly points to “avoiding the proliferation of unnecessary, redundant or overlapping data infrastructure such as data centres”.
How much data CO2 is my organization creating? Based on available measures, we predict that a typical data-driven enterprise with 50 full-time employees will generate 2,295 GB of data a day, this equates to 550,800 GB of data generated a year, which will produce 1,102 tons of C02 per year. To put this into perspective, our carbon cost of data calculator predicts that this carbon footprint equates to 1,281 flights from London Heathrow to New York.
The world is at a critical juncture, with the production of digital data growing more rapidly than ever before. If net-zero ambitions are to be realized, then all critical drivers of carbon production need to be seriously considered, including the digital carbon footprint. Just because it isn’t as visible as other environmental pollutants, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Digital decarbonization efforts will not only benefit the environment, but also bring direct benefits to organizations – by optimizing the data gathering and managing and reducing costs related to e-waste and energy.
To help organisations move forward, we developed the CO2 Data Heatmap, the first framework to diagnose the data carbon footprint from origin to end-user. Using a traffic light display, the heatmap acts as a diagnostic tool to reveal data CO2 hotspots.
Okay, but what can I do about data CO2 right now?
For individuals, reflecting on digital workplace practices is an important step to help reduce dark data, data duplication, and data overload – all of which add to the data CO2 footprint. Making seemingly small adjustments to working practices could have a huge positive cumulative impact towards digital decarbonization.
To illustrate this, let’s look at emails. According to recent reports, a typical email without attachments will generate approximately 4g of CO2. We know that the average full-time office worker will send approximately 40 emails in a working day, amounting to 0.8kg of CO2 per employee, per working week. For a small organisation of 50 employees, working 46 weeks in a calendar year, this would subsequently equate to over 1.8 tonnes of CO2 per year just from emails.
To take this one step further, between 2021 and 2022 there were 4,578,267 registered companies in England. If each had 50 employees, the annual email generated CO2 would be over 8 billion tonnes. For context, the International Air Transport Association reported that the global aviation industry emitted 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019. So, let’s think on that. Eight billion tonnes of email generated CO2. And that’s just for one country.
Ian, Tom and Lisa are academics from Loughborough University, UK. Currently funded by the UKRI National Circular Economy Research Hub (CE-Hub), they are investigating the net zero implications of digital transformations (learn more on digitaldecarb.org)