[Intern Insights] Digitolution: Is digitalization truly green?


Most people have a positive reaction when they see ‘digitalisation’ and ‘environmental sustainability’ in the same sentence. It’s the same feeling we get when encouraged to “go paperless and save trees!”

It’s true, digitising data saves trees. That’s a good thing. However, we all know that the true motivator for most corporations is the bottom line. Honestly, though, we don’t really mind whether they truly care about ‘going green’ because it’s good for the environment.

In addition, IT innovation, digitisation, digitalisation, allow us to cut down on our personal energy usage. It’s a fact that our society has moved to a cloud-based information storage and streaming system. Consider: emails instead of regular mail, conference calls instead of flying in, or online streaming of music and movies instead of taking up space on a physical hard disk, and so on. What great times we live in! All that aside, however, there is little understanding of the negative implications digital actions really have on the environment.

While opinions are divided about our society going digital, we all feel that at least it’s beneficial for the environment – namely, because we assume that digital is greener than paper. Despite the information available, we often turn a blind eye to the unintended consequences of society’s digitalisation.

One of the main points of digitalisation – aside from making our lives easier – has been about reducing our carbon footprints. However, when going digital, we actually create a “digital carbon footprint”.

People often imagine that saving data somewhere ‘on the cloud’ is purely virtually, while in reality the data is stored physically. And the carbon footprint of this physical storage location, the data centre, should not be underestimated!

These data centres can vary from a small room to huge cloud server farms bigger than a soccer field – are not too old yet. In the beginning, the main focus for operators was keeping up with demand. Being energy efficient was not a priority. Today, when setting up one of these centres, issues surrounding sustainability are taken into account more and more [Data Knowledge Centre, 2016].

Still, there is a lot of room for improvement.

The centres consume an incredible amount of energy, as they require a steady flow of electricity to run the servers, no matter the demand. Only 6 – 10% of this energy is actually used, the rest is kept in case of a surge or crash. Spikes for servers hosting data related to online shopping, for example, happen during Christmas times, when all want to buy presents.

In addition, servers need to be cooled down constantly. According to Greenpeace, 50 to 80% of energy comes from coal-generated power – the thought of this is so contradictory, using coal power to keep the digitalisation of society moving forward.

What’s more, the NY Times stated that a single data centre can use more power than a medium- size town and that worldwide data storage uses as much electricity as the output of 30 nuclear power plants.

This creates CO2 emissions. In fact, The Independent wrote that data centres are responsible for 2% of the global CO2 emissions, that’s about the same number of emissions coming from global aviation, and this number will increase! Think about the fact that 2 years ago, 90% of data did not exist! (Mallach, E., 2016).

Besides all advantages innovations such as the Internet of Things, digital supply chains and so on bring, the amount of data that will be created is huge. The Independent further stated that considering the fact that innovations in hardware allow an increased capacity to store data and assuming that a switch to renewable energy won’t happen that fast, it’s still predicted that in the next decade, data centres will use triple as much electricity as today.

So, whilst writing this article, I did not support the environment.

Our seeming to be harmless everyday actions sum up and foster global warming. Whilst sending a text message, streaming movies or music, commenting on social media, we all increase our carbon footprint.

I’m not saying that watching an old-school DVD is greener; it’s hard to compare options with so many factors in play, such as if the DVD is picked up by car and so on. I’m just personally astonished that my online activities are not as green as I believed.

To give examples:

  • One Google search produces around 0.2g of CO2, that’s about the energy used to heat half a cup of water.
  • Sending out 65 short emails is equal to driving an average-sized car for 1km. Even if I do not send out 65 emails a day, I certainly receive too many useless spam mails. An unopened spam mail produces 0.3g of CO2, more than a Google search. This means that the global carbon footprint for spam is equal to emissions produced by 3.1 million passenger cars that use 7.6 billion litres of gasoline yearly.

It’s not only our personal use; businesses shifted to “the cloud”. It’s easy, allows real-time online collaboration between people and gives access to real-time data worldwide. And let’s not to forget, it reduces licensing and purchasing costs for hardware, software and servers.

The good news is that social, economic, environmental and political pressure are pushing big players to publicly commit to using renewable power and reduce both their physical and digital carbon footprints. However, it’s also the countless numbers of small centres that add to the problem. Furthermore, it’s very hard to measure the global carbon footprint that digitalisation leaves behind.

If data centres continue to use coal power or will switch to renewable energy will impact on global warming. A switch to renewable energy definitely would boost investments and thus innovation for green energy.

This post is brought to you by one of AQ’s Undergraduates, Alexa V. As part of our internship programs, undergraduates and classic interns are encouraged to take part in company culture. Alexa’s primary focus is in digital marketing.

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