A large part of the world can no longer function without data centres. These are the networked computing and storage facilities that enable the delivery of software applications and data. They are vital to the daily functioning of governments, societies, and users alike. Currently, there are some 11,000 data centres worldwide, approximately half of which are in the USA.

According to UNCTAD, “Since 2010, global internet users have more than doubled and data traffic has expanded 25-fold. An increase in online activities like streaming videos and downloading files demands more energy and generates more emissions. Data centres and networks powering online and cloud services generate an estimated 1% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). And devices, data centres and ICT networks account for 6% to 12% of global energy use.”

Writing in The Guardian (17 May 2024), Koren Helbig noted that “Digital data is stored and processed in giant energy-guzzling data centres dotted all over the world. Every document, photo and email – even every ‘like’ or comment on social media – travels through multiple electricity-hungry layers of internet infrastructure, including computer servers housed in mind-bogglingly large data centres.”

And, according to The Washington Post (21June 2024), “As the tech giants compete in a global AI arms race, a frenzy of data center construction is sweeping the country. Some computing campuses require as much energy as a modest-sized city, turning tech firms that promised to lead the way into a clean energy future into some of the world’s most insatiable guzzlers of power.”

Processing data produces vast amounts of heat. Data-processors need cooling by systems that are often powered by coal. Data centres in India, Indonesia, and Australia are the most carbon intensive, because those countries produce more electricity with fossil fuels, particularly coal. Data centres in Northern Europe are typically more sustainable, since they use more renewable sources of electricity.

Carbon emissions are not the only environmental problem associated with the world’s insatiable demand for data-processing.

  • Data centres use vast amounts of water, primarily to cool servers and other IT equipment. Water scarcity compounds the problem.
  • Equipment such as servers, storage devices, and cooling systems have a limited shelf-life. Once obsolescent, they must be disposed of properly – not as landfill.
  • Data centres usually rely on large banks of batteries to maintain operations during power outages. These batteries, typically of the lead-acid or lithium-ion variety, are not environmentally friendly.
  • Coolants used in data centres can also become an environmental hazard.

Almost the whole world depends on digital infrastructures.

Can we do anything to help alleviate their environmental impact? According to Koren Helbig in The Guardian, yes.

  • Avoid firing up generative AI for simple answers – it uses an estimated four to five times the energy of a conventional web search.
  • Delete virtual clutter. Most of us hoard thousands of old or unread emails and countless photo duplicates. Getting rid of them reduces the digital footprint.
  • Minimise cloud storage. By 2025 the digital industry is set to become the fourth-highest electricity consumer in the world, behind China, India, and the USA. Store photos and files on password-protected hard drives that only use energy when plugged in.
  • Keep devices for as long as possible. New ones come at a hefty environmental cost.

Digitalization should carry a planetary health warning!

Image: Adapted from Shutterstock AI