Carbon Emission From Data Centers Similar To The Airline Industry


Data centers are regarded as the factories of the digital age, located at the center of people's digital activities; the heart of what powers the modern days of technology.

Scattered all over the world, data centers run various digital services billions of people use everyday. With them around, people around the world are replacing pens and papers with bytes.

People presumed that with digital technologies, they could have put forward a solution to save the Earth, by making people cut less trees.

However, these mostly windowless building that can cover tens of thousands of square meters, can consume as much electricity as a city with a million people. The servers hunger for power to run. And when they are running, they generate much heat that needed to be cooled, also with electricity.

As many of data centers' electricity still rely on sources like gas, oil and coal, the result in inevitable: their hunger for power emits roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry.

And with global data traffic increasing, the number of carbon footprint data centers generate also increases.

What this means, what people thought that digital technologies would put less stress to the environment, the fact is kind of the opposite.

Data center
(Credit: Getty Images)

It's often difficult to really measure the environmental impacts of data centers and people's digital lives, partly because the digital ecosystems that facilitate the internet are complex. The United Nations Environment Assembly already defined the digital ecosystem as “a complex distributed network or interconnected socio-technological system”.

In 2017, it was reported that internet traffic was increasing at an exponential rate, and had reached 1.1 zettabytes (one trillion and one hundred thousand gigabytes). That didn't count the carbon emissions that were generated from manufacturers in manufacturing devices.

Apart from the obvious social and economic impacts, emerging technologies that include Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), cryptocurrencies and others should be seriously considered.

With more and more people coming to the internet, and the more the human civilization expected to depend more heavily on technologies, the environmental impacts of digital ecosystems are going to increase.

Corporations aren’t obliged to share information on how much energy is needed or supplied for their data centers. But they are already sacrificing a bit of their comfort to develop and build approaches to rely less on fossil fuels, that in order to lower their CO2 emission and increase their efficiency.

Google's data center in Hamina, Finland
Google's data center in Hamina, Finland uses sea water from the Bay of Finland to cool its buildings and severs, reducing energy use. (Credit: Google)

An increasing number of corporations in the tech and IT industry are using renewable or other low-carbon energy sources. This way, their data centers should be able to reduce their environmental impact significantly.

Tech giants such as Apple and Google have committed to 100% renewable targets, but they’re just one part of the already huge digital ecosystem.

Others are ramping up their energy efficiency by seeking Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), the industry standard metric for assessing data center energy efficiency. Some are even racing to reach the lowest PUE to satisfy the expectations of their customers, shareholders and the community.

Some tech companies also rely on carbon offsets. Here, they want to reduce emissions made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere.

This can involve people and organizations investing in environmental projects to balance their carbon emissions from other activities.

Governments should also provide a regulatory environment that demands greater transparency on how digital corporations use energy. These corporations should also be accountable for what they are doing and generating, so they can improve the sustainability of their practices.