A Greener Internet? The Carbon Cost and Environmental Impact of Big Data Centers

Environmental impact of data centers

Did you know data centers are everywhere? Really! They are everywhere. While you may not see them, millions of data centers are scattered across the globe—in big cities, small towns, deserts, the Arctic, underground, and underwater. Data centers make the internet possible, and every little click and function on the web takes the processing power that a data center provides.

Think about it. All of the internet's data has to go somewhere and all of the computation and processing required to process everything requires vast amounts of electricity. Which begs the question: how bad are data centers for the environment? And is there anything we can do to reduce the internet's carbon footprint?

The Carbon Cost of the Internet

In total, data centers eat up more than 2% of the world's electricity and emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry. And with global data traffic more than doubling every four years, that cost is expected to grow fast!

Most predictions expect the energy consumption of data centers is set to account for 3.2% of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025. It's possible that the internet and its many data centers may one day consume up to a fifth of all global electricity.

By 2040, storing digital data is set to create around 14% of the world's emissions. To put that number in perspective, that's around the same proportion the United States of America accounts for today.

How Much Energy Do Data Centers Actually Use?

The processors in the most extensive data centers can consume as much energy as can be delivered by a large power station, producing in the vicinity of 1,000 megawatts. That's enough energy to power a city of 1 million people!

According to the International Energy Agency, Bitcoin mining alone uses more energy than many countries, for example, Austria or Colombia. Luckily, cryptocurrency mining is on the decline, but it only made up for a piece of the online power consumption pie.

All of this electricity needed for servers to operate also leads to heat, and heat isn't suitable for the computers that make up a data center. In addition to the energy needed to run IT equipment, energy must also be used to cool facilities. This often costs more in terms of energy and carbon emissions than the processing machines themselves.

For a data center to function, it needs to have been built in a country with a naturally cold climate, like Iceland or Finland. Or it must be housed in a temperature-controlled environment that must be maintained round the clock. Basically, the AC must be blasted at full power at all times. A little less than half the total energy data centers consume goes to cooling IT equipment alone.

Internxt is a cloud storage service based on encryption and privacy.

Efficiency, Going Eco-friendly, and the Rise of Renewable Energy

There are two significant points of attack for curbing data center energy use: one is switching centers to renewables or other low-carbon energy sources, and two is ramping up their energy and computing efficiency.

Adding renewable power to the mix can help reduce a data center's overall emissions by up to 98% when combined with other strategies, especially ones focused on boosting computer efficiency. While using renewables is essential and necessary, increasing the efficiency of existing technologies will go much farther in cutting back data center emissions.

Processors in most server farms perform computations at just 3% to 5% of their maximum capacity. According to researchers at Stanford's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy & Finance, boosting efficiency through server virtualization, consolidation, and better software can increase utilization to greater than 30% and sometimes to as high as 80%.

Google and other tech companies are experimenting with moving their data and tech centers to locations in cooler climates. By doing so, these centers eliminate much of the need for artificial cooling, limiting overall energy consumption and cutting site emissions.

Another approach some industry players take, including Microsoft, is creating carbon offsetting projects, such as investing in forests to soak up excess CO2 from their continued emissions. The idea behind these initiatives being the company is eliminating more carbon than they are creating and thus are a net positive for the earth, regardless of energy use and emissions.

However, with countries now responding to user security concerns and passing various laws and privacy acts requiring citizen data to be stored on domestic servers, picking colder climates beyond these borders is no longer a viable option. Also, carbon offsetting projects do little to solve anything other than shift blame and responsibility.

Environmental Toll of the Web

The environmental impact caused by data centers doesn't stop at electrical consumption—hazardous coolants, diesel generators, and batteries made of hard metals also pose a risk. But when everything is considered, the internet may not be the climate villain it's often made out to be.

Computer efficiency is often understated, and data center impact worldwide is often blown out of proportion. Though their energy use is enormous, in relation to the whole wide world, data centers consume only about 1.5% of all electricity and are responsible for only 0.5% of total carbon emissions.

It's important to note that the internet is also helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it promotes the mass distribution of goods digitally. Things that were once delivered physically, like books, music, publications, and mail, are all now done online, requiring a fraction of the energy they once needed to be produced. Think of all the paper and trees that have been saved!

Internxt is a cloud storage service based on encryption and privacy.

The Future Climate Impact of the Internet

Realistically, you will see web traffic and the internet's energy needs skyrocket in the coming years. Much of the world is still moving online. But rather than carbon emissions blasting off with the higher demand, we'll likely see efficiency rise along with usage.

Best bet? Total internet and data center usage will stay at roughly the same levels it's at now as efficiency and renewables will cancel out increased web activity.

The cloud is here to stay, so is the internet, and so are humans, but no one knows exactly where it’s all headed. How we balance our needs and the needs of our environment will determine how prosperous (or disastrous) our techno-centric future will be.

So what can you do? It can't hurt to choose companies putting sustainability, privacy and humanity at the forefront of their business. Staying optimistic and supporting free and open-source services like Internxt, is a great place to start.

The internet may be one of the many problems causing climate change, but it is undoubtedly one of our greatest tools for fixing it.