Everyone has seen the warning. At the bottom of the email, it says: “Please consider the environment before printing.” But for those who care about global warming, you might want to consider not writing so many emails in the first place.
More and more, people rely on their electronic mailboxes as a life organiser. Old emails, photos, and files from years past sit undisturbed, awaiting your search for a name, lost address. The problem is that all those messages require energy to preserve them. And despite the tech industry’s focus on
renewables, the advent of streaming and artificial intelligence is only accelerating the amount of fossil fuels burned to keep data servers up, running, and cool.
Right now, data centres consume about 2% of the world’s electricity, but that’s expected to reach 8% by 2030. Moreover, only about 6% of all data ever created is in use today,
according to research from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. That means that 94% is sitting in a vast “cyber landfill,” albeit one with a massive carbon footprint.
“It’s costing us the equivalent of maintaining the airline industry for data we don’t even use,” says Andrew Choi, a senior research analyst at Parnassus Investments, a $27 billion environmental, social, and governance firm in San Francisco.
Kirk Bresniker, chief architect of Hewlett Packard Labs, said these server farms use energy both to retain your data, and when you use it in some way.
“If I want to actually do something with my data, I have to warm it up and move it through the data centre,” he says. And for those who think you’re erasing email when you empty the trash, you probably aren’t. Multiple copies of even decade-old emails are stored on servers around the world. And energy is being used to keep them alive.
The sum of all the world’s data in 2018 was 33 zettabytes (a zettabyte is 1 trillion gigabytes), but by 2025 it could
increase fivefold, to 175 zettabytes, according to International Data Corp. Every day, the world produces about
2.5 quintillion bytes of data.
This is a sector “where emissions are increasingly getting out of control,” says Philippe Zaouati, chief executive officer of Paris-based Mirova, a $15 billion sustainable asset manager. “We need to decrease carbon emissions, and what we see in the IT sector is increasing emissions.”
Indeed, socially conscious investors have historically been attracted to tech stocks, based on the assumptions that it’s a low-emissions industry. Some are starting to rethink that.
Choi says the problem is getting too big too fast.