Water, sanitation, electricity and gas are the four core utilities the world relies on for everything from survival to Silicon Valley. But in today’s modern era, as a result of the globalization, digitalisation and the expansion of the internet and online sphere, there’s been an addition of a fifth utility to the essential quartet, and that is data.
The internet has only been in existence for just under 40 years, but in that time we’ve seen a monumental shift in the structure of society, as a significant portion of everyone’s lives has migrated from the real- to virtual-world.
As of July 2022, there were just over 5 billion active internet users worldwide, accounting for approximately 62% of the total global population, which is billions more than the 55% of the world population who have access to safe sanitation.
We interact online, we work online, we buy and sell online – we even store our belongings online — what was once a dog-eared family photo album is now a Dropbox folder in the cloud.
The internet is everywhere and everything, and like a computer runs on electricity, the internet runs on data.
Society’s eyes are open to the collective and individual responsibilities held in minimizing the carbon footprint of daily life. Whether by religiously recycling, cutting air miles, or sacrificing eating steak in the name of sustainability; we’re well aware of the common-sense compromises and lifestyle changes required to ensure a prosperous future.
But what’s not perhaps so obvious, is how much our individual data-driven lifestyles are contributing to the global digital footprint, and the impact that’s having on the planet.
For the average internet user – despite using it every day to access the online sphere to stream, google, connect, store and much much more – data is in many ways conceptually intangible. It projects a somewhat invisible sentiment, and doesn’t necessarily inspire association with any kind of bricks-and-mortar physical location.
In reality, our email servers, search history, social media, Netflix accounts, iCloud storage, Google Drive and other online attics, all have a very physical location in a data centre that requires water and electricity to run and keep cool.
To clarify, there is a you-labeled hard-drive, on a shelf, in a warehouse full of everyone else’s hard-drives on shelves, in a server-farm or data centre probably in the middle of the desert, Singapore or possibly the Silicon valley.
What’s more, every time you login, search or store something online, you are metaphorically teleporting to this hard drive, opening it up and adding/removing digital possessions – probably hundreds of times per day – and this does have a tangible environmental impact.
Essentially, your hyperspace bookshelf has a real-life location in a data centre which requires energy and air conditioning to run efficiently 24/7, 365 days a year.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that the data centers and networks that store and transfer the world’s data now account for between 1-1.5% of the total global electricity use, are responsible for nearly 1% of total energy-related emissions, and a surprising 0.6% of total global emissions.
This is almost three times the amount produced by global railways.
There are approximately 7.2 million centers like this worldwide that host the planet’s data, every one of which requires energy to power and maintain. So it’s understandable that the rapid increase in data consumption has over the past few years started raising concerns about sustainability.
As a result of this escalating impact, IEA now advises that in order to align with the Paris Agreement’s net zero targets, the data sector must halve these emissions by 2030.
It seems the world’s unsustainable online habits have begun impacting more than just good old-fashioned human interaction.
As the world becomes increasingly digitalised, data centres and data transmission networks are emerging as an important source of energy demand.https://t.co/AiAv7CpCki
— International Energy Agency (@IEA) October 22, 2020
Data consumption has scaled-up significantly in the past few years; by the end of 2022 the total global data volume is estimated to reach around 97 zettabytes – equivalent to almost 100 billion 1TB hard drives, or 20 hard drives per person.
Once created data can never be deleted, or so goes the common trope. In practice, data can be deleted, but there’s a catch: It’s hard to organize deletions and verify them, as often data will only be partly written over. As a result, there is a tendency to let data pile up, simply because it’s easier.
One thing is certain: The amount of data generated and stored is now so large that conventional metrics are no longer sufficient to quantify it. New unit measurements have had to be created in order to keep up – instead of zettabytes (21 zeroes), we can now talk about data quantities in ronnabytes (27 zeroes) and quettabytes (30 zeroes).
What’s more, a large proportion of this expansion has occurred in just the past 3 years, with each internet user now averaging almost 7 online hours per day, almost 60% of today’s existing data has been created since 2019, and the total amount of data is predicted to almost double again by 2025.
The staggering increase in data has of course been partly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has catalyzed the shift of many in-real-life activities to exist almost entirely online three years later.
This rapid increase in virtual demand has been, and will continue to be, very advantageous for the data sector. But like anything, with more demand and power comes more attention, and that brings with it more responsibility.
As data centres scale-up to meet society’s needs, they are now in the spotlight of increased global scrutiny, regulation and monitoring, as governments assess how the industry can expand both quickly and sustainably, as well as provide long-term greener options for inevitable further growth in the future.
Net-zero pledges from industry
Many networks, data centers and big tech corporations have pledged commitment to sustainable practices in line with the Paris agreement.
Norwegian “green computing” energy provider, Earth Wind and Power, acts as a “sustainable bridge” between different renewable and non-renewable energy sources and digital infrastructure, converting the excess energy produced at such sources into computational power.
Last week the organisation announced that they would soon be implementing a bridge between excess electrical energy from offshore wind farms to provide power to data centres in Northern Europe.
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Similarly to Norway, Iceland is also a leader in renewable energy sources, and therefore home to many eco-friendly data centers.
Verne Global is one such company who has established what they call “future-fit” data infrastructure in Iceland; data centers which are powered by 100% carbon neutral renewable energy sources.
“Super natural power starts here,” says Verne Global, who are committed to providing high-performance low-cost data centers for innovators, visionaries and entrepreneurs, stating that “We’re here to help you change the world. Not exhaust it.”
Other breakthrough solutions to solve the conundrum of meeting the world’s growing demands for increased digitalisation whilst simultaneously mitigating the sector’s demand on the world’s energy include solar powered data centers in low-earth orbit…
— Thales Alenia Space (@Thales_Alenia_S) November 14, 2022
Or, translating the in silico language of binary ones and zeros into the in vitro language of the genetic building blocks of life: the As, Gs, Ts and Cs of DNA, which is 1000 times more dense than the storage capacity of computer silicon.
Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple have all also pledged to go net zero by 2030, with Google’s CEO warning that “Climate change is humanity’s next big moonshot.”
Google has also taken this one step further, by implementing their own data-driven method of “climate-conscious data center cooling,” which defines a site-tailored solution to sustainable water-based cooling for each data centre, taking into account “local hydrology, geography, energy and emissions factors.”
Amazon Web Services has pledged to become water positive by 2030, meaning they will conserve and reuse water at their global sites, and will attempt to offset their impact by making more water available to the communities where their sites operate.
There’s no denying that tech companies and the digital sector are a critical part of the climate change problem, as their infrastructures and operations contribute an enormous amount of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
Ironically however, there really are two sides to every story, as these digital industries and the technologies they provide are also a crucial part of climate change solutions which can significantly help accelerate the green transition.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Alongside their high energy demands and hefty carbon emissions in the short term, technologies and services such as the cloud, 5G network and AI systems can also help cut costs, improve energy efficiency, accelerate clean energy transitions, and subsequently decrease emissions in the long term.
As a result of globalization, changing demands – and also partially the pandemic – there’s been a significant shift from local data storage to cloud-based computing. This is advantageous, because according to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the cloud is also the greener option.
In 2021, IDC forecast that a wide scale transition to cloud-based computing over the next four years could help to shrink emissions by as much as one billion metric tons of CO2 – this is more than one-third of the EU’s total annual emissions for the same year, and is equivalent to the annual CO2 consuming capacity of around 40 billion trees.
Similarly, leveling up wireless mobile technology to the latest 5G network has proved significantly more energy efficient, requires less energy to run, and has the capacity to transmit greater quantities of data.
5G’s technological capabilities enable significant advancement of our sustainability efforts through widespread implementation of smart meters, and establishment of smart cities which have the capacity to connect individuals with infrastructure and facilitate greater energy efficiency.
“A smart city goes beyond the use of digital technologies for better resource use and less emissions. It means smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings,” says the European Commission.
5G also facilitates a greater understanding of big data, which can inform important decisions relating to the environment, weather, agriculture and industry. The potential of 5G to beneficially impact society’s connection with their surroundings, from monitoring air quality to tracking food wastage, is a big step in the right direction towards a greener technological future.
But neither 5G nor the cloud can be facilitated without data centers expanding and streamlining their AI infrastructure and automated capabilities, which in itself requires a sizable amount of energy.
All this does not take into account the geo-political dangers alleged by the American government, that sees 5G as a Chinese threat but so far its European allies have turned a deaf ear to its warnings.
Deep learning, language models and neural networks require a significant amount of training time and computing capacity to be fully functional, which in turn requires many hours worth of energy to power and leads to an inflated output of emissions.
There’s still a lack of clarity around the exact carbon footprint of AI, however some studies have had a go at estimating its environmental impact – their results suggest it could be concerningly high.
Emma Strubell, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, showed that a single AI training programme can emit up to five times that of the average car across its driving lifetime. That’s 284 tonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to nearly 14,000 trees per AI architecture.
Another study published this year showed that some AI model’s training requirements possibly exceed the energy demands of a year’s supply of energy for a home.
“It is undeniable that AI and its sub-fields have grown dramatically in recent years, with no sign of slowing down,” says the group who conducted the study, adding that “with an increasing amount of AI model training being done on cloud compute instances, reducing the emissions generated by these workloads will be key to reducing our carbon footprint as a field.”
AI’s true carbon footprint is still a bit of a mystery. Hugging Face believes it's come up with a way to calculate it more precisely. https://t.co/uQA2xlDm1v
— MIT Technology Review (@techreview) November 27, 2022
Data is the future, but also one of its biggest problems
The internet is essential for global progress, connectivity and development, but like air travel and fossil fuels, its uncontrolled growth is fast becoming a major contributor to the global climate problem.
Policy-makers, tech companies and the wider digital industry alike will need to keep a close eye on maintaining the balance between data infrastructure’s advancement of climate innovation as well as its escalating environmental impact.
It’s also likely that many of the 5 billion active internet users worldwide will not face the worst of the climate crisis, as the developing world often contributes the least, but suffers the most.
The developed world therefore has a responsibility to curb unsustainable 5th utility data privilege, and choose more sustainable data consumption, storage and transmission options for the future of technology, people and well-being of the entire world.
Data is the future, but if we’re not careful with our use of it, what will that future look like?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Apple MacBook Pro Keyboard. Featured Photo Credit: Vandan Patel/Unsplash