At the recent UN Climate Change conference, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg took many of the world’s leaders and decision makers to task about their stewardship of the planet.
Her comments are backed up by increasingly statistical evidence that man is having a detrimental effect on the planet, and this behaviour is in danger of becoming out of control. The remedial actions we all are being urged to take are to get out of our cars, take less air travel, use less plastics and non-reusable items and eat less red meat.
But hang on a minute – agreed, we all need to take stock of our global footprint, but has this new breed of climate activist sidestepped one of the biggest growing sources of resource use and pollution – our incessant need for immediate connectivity and data?
In researching some of the facts for this blog, I was genuinely staggered by the figures.
According to NodeGraph, back in 2017 the number of internet users stood at nearly 4 billion – 51% of the world’s population. To put that in perspective, the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home; more than twice as many lack safe sanitation – so in short; in the year 2019, more people can use the internet than go to the toilet.
What’s fuelling this online explosion?
NodeGraph states that every minute we send 150,000 emails, create 3.3 million Facebook posts, ½ million tweets, upload 65,000 instagram photos, and direct 500 hours of YouTube videos. This is leading to a massive expansion of data that needs storing, and the Cloud is the No.1 destination.
The actual consumption figures reported by IDC are that we will consume 33 Zetabytes this year, increasing to 175 ZetaBytes by 2025. That’s a 61% compound growth rate year on year (Note: 1 terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes. 1 petabyte equals 1,024 terabytes. 1 exabyte equals 1,024 petabytes and a zettabyte equals 1,024 exabytes), so in layman’s terms, if you stored this amount of data on Blue Ray discs, stacked them up, they would reach the Moon 23 times.
Why do these figures matter?
Well, Clouds live in Data Centres, and like all other consumable items we use, have an impact on the climate. Clouds (AKA Data Centres) need to be built, filled with equipment, powered and cooled. This unprecedented growth is leading to a massive expansion of the amount of Data Centres being built to accommodate those clouds borne out by the global Data Centre market size. A market that is estimated to grow by $285 bn during 2019-2023, and at a compound annual growth rate of more than 17% during the same period.
In a recent article by Data Center Knowledge, the Cloud Data Centre construction market was analysed using data from the commercial real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). They reported that global Data Centre leasing (the space required to house Clouds) was up 33% in 2018. Using the consumption of power (in MegaWatts – MW) as the measurement of growth the following chart JLL produced is quite sobering.
They also reported no signs of demand decreasing, with Data Centre builds accelerating to about 550MW of capacity under construction around the world at the end of 2018.
This demand for electricity is eating up more than 2% of the world’s supply and will emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry does, according to Yale Environment 360. This comparison to airline pollution strikes a direct correlation to the main headline grabbing statistics used in the climate change debate. The worrying statistic is that our rate of data consumption is steadily increasing (more than doubling every four years), compared to airline pollution that is already under the microscope. This growth rate is much faster than Moores law ever envisaged, or any figure the industry predicted only a few years ago and is already outpacing the Data Centre industry’s efforts to become cleaner and more carbon neutral.
None of these figures take into account the environmental cost of building the DataCentre, manufacturing the concrete or steel required to form the building, shipping the equipment (usually from China) to install in the Data Centre and the footprint from engineers and technicians responsible for making the Data Centre operational.
The throwaway society
A major factor in the concern for the planet is our evolution into throw away consumers. Looking close to home, as a Managed Service Provider that is continually procuring equipment for ourselves or our clients, I worry about the indulgent use of once only packaging that vendors in our industry still appear to be comfortable to inflict on us every time we make a purchase. There doesn’t seem to be any noticeable reduction in this use once packing.
In the wider market, single use items such as plastic straws, containers and bottles, to wear once clothes are justifiably being singled out as something that is not compatible with our aspirations for climate change. However, sit in a park or stand on the street in any major town or city and you will be dismayed by the amount of people still prepared to prop up this type of waste. Consumers of technology seem to be no different.
Too Close for Comfort?
Commodity items we can physically see; the mountains of waste and the oceans of plastic, but what about our digital wastefulness?
By 2020, 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second per person, and around 35% of it will be processed through the cloud. However, today, less than 0.5% of available data is actually being analysed. And, how long will people hold on to outdated data because it’s cheap and out of sight? Is this all not just as wasteful as throw away fashion or a plastic straw?
To put it another way:
Even without considering storing data from searches, we perform 3.8 million Google searches every minute, who themselves estimate that a typical search requires as much energy as illuminating a 60-watt light bulb for 17 seconds. This consumption typically emits 0.2 grams of CO2 per search, or to put it another way, collectively emits ¾ ton of CO2 a minute. Sobering eh? You might have seen Ecosia popping up on your social feeds lately – the search engine that plants trees. Take a look.
How will our industry respond to Greta’s challenge?
It’s not all bad news. The industry is working hard to mitigate our technology use and Data Centres are becoming even more streamlined in design as building systems become more efficient and less expensive to operate. They are also investing more in renewable energy sources like hydro, wind and solar sources. But, it is clear that our pressure on the planets’ climate will be addressed with the only levers open to governments, taxation and levies.
Commentators are already suggesting that less animals will lead to meat becoming a premium, the consumer price for fossil fuels is to remove the use of the internal combustion engine, and landfill for household waste already attracts tariffs to dump unwanted items. Data Centre users are already accountable to the green levy, therefore we should all expect our cheap computing costs to increase.
And the conclusion?
Well, Greta is pretty clear that we need to change, and we need to do it quickly. We need to reflect on our own consumption of technology, and think seriously about its sustainability because our industry can’t avoid the spotlight for long.
My last word to you is; absorb this statistic. If the global IT industry were a country, only China and the United States would contribute more to climate change, according to Greenpeace.
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