The dark side of data: understanding the environmental impact



Data: an invaluable resource

Data is undoubtedly playing a vital role in how humans and technology manage climate change and its impact. Each organisational process can exploit data to improve all aspects of business function. From supply chain management to operational efficiency, the potential gains are huge.

Take Italian tyre manufacturer, Pirelli, for example. Working with SAP, a multinational software company, Pirelli out rolled big data management system — HANA through their operations. HANA provides key data about each tyre through the entire production process. Including readings from the machines that produced it and information about the raw materials used in the production process.

Armed with these insights, Pirelli is able to predict in real-time the expected quality of each tyre and benefit from waste reduction. Furthermore, by using improved distribution systems, any potential bottlenecks are neatly side-stepped.

Pirelli arn’t the only company on the road to digital transformation. SAP has an impressive portfolio of clients looking to bolster business performance through using data analytics. However, all businesses — large and small — have the same opportunity to minimise environmental impact using digital tools like big data, AI and IoT.

The real cost of data — environmental impact

While data can provide us with real-time operational insights, it comes at a huge cost.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that there are now 8 million data centres globally. Together they sap around 2% of the world’s electricity and generate carbon emissions on a par with the aviation industry.

Coupled with the exponential growth of data in recent years (estimates show that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years), it’s more important than ever that we get a grip on the carbon footprint of data itself.

We know that data-crunching requires energy and a lot of it. And to make matters worse some of the biggest data centres are located in hot climates, meaning they require even more energy to keep the servers cool.

Eye-watering isn’t it.

Is green internet the answer?

Up to now, data has been taken for granted. The environmental cost of 720,000 hours of video content uploaded to YouTube everyday has never been questioned. Neither has the daily 500 million tweets posted to the Twittersphere.

As more and more companies dip their toe into the digital world we can expect to see a

vast increase in data and its storage. Valued at USD 20.11 billion in 2019, the data centre construction market is expected to reach a value of USD 32.50 billion by 2025.

…but the environmental impact of doing so is prompting change. The so-called ‘green internet’ might be the way forward for a brighter future.

Tech companies are bowing to the pressure of reducing their carbon footprint. Microsoft is working towards carbon neutrality through carbon-offsetting projects, such as investing in forests to absorb CO2 from their activity.

Working to offset emissions is a step in the right direction, but more focus needs to be given to achieving zero emissions.

One move would be to relocate the data centres away from hot parts of the world and into cooler climates. Nordic companies are already taking advantage of the region’s chillier temperatures. Norwegian bank DNB has made use of an underground bunker near Stavanger that’s kept cool by using water from a nearby fjord.

Other data big-dogs are following suit. Google and Microsoft have built data hubs in Finland, and Facebook has digital processing units in Denmark and Sweden. As well as having a colder climate, the powerhouse Nordic countries are at the forefront of developments in renewable energy.

The ready availability of hydro-electric and wind energy, coupled with a reduction in energy taxes, could see investment in Nordic data centres double by 2025.

Introducing Hyperscale Data Centres

Welcome to the future of data storage.

Hyperscale Data Centres (HDC) can hold in excess of 5,000 servers, while some of the biggest HDCs occupy millions of square metres.

Hyperscale refers to ultimate scalability and maximum space utilisation. The architecture of HDCs is unique to the organisation that owns it; with each aspect customised to increase efficiency.

Google is leading the way. Since 2014 they’ve managed to slash their energy use by 50% through advanced temperature controls in their data centres. They use machine learning to continually optimise their centres. For example, an algorithm trained on past weather data will automatically tweak a centre’s cooling system in response to the environment.

Self-proclaimed as the “largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world”, Google increased their energy portfolio by 40% through power purchase agreements with global utilities. Designed to fund the construction of renewable energy projects, these deals work on the basis that Google can access the energy produced once construction is completed.

In Fredericia, Denmark, Google’s fifth European data centre is under construction and set for completion in 2021. It comes with a promise from the search-engine giant that “We’ll look to continue investing in Europe, leading the way with green projects and building ties with the local community.”

Of course, Google with its vast wealth is able to invest more heavily into R&D and experiment with various digital solutions, placing them at the bleeding edge of data technology.

Though smaller-scale enterprises cannot reap the same rewards as HDCs, they’re able to follow Google’s example and take advantage of the data that’s at their fingertips for sustainable business practice.

After all, our future depends on digital infrastructure but without the high environmental cost.

Connect with me on LinkedIn to talk more about socially-responsible marketing.

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