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Dealing With the Carbon Footprint of Data

Technology

Sep 2, 2020 - 7 minutes read

Dealing With Carbon Footprint Of Data Blog 416X300
Łukasz Mielczarek Senior Business Analyst

Senior Business Analyst with over 15 years of experience in software development. He tries to understand how digital tools will impact our work and lives in the future. 

See all Łukasz's posts
Data Driven Organisation Blog Ebook 416X300

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The amount of the digital data we consume and transfer in the modern world is exploding as more and more activities are done using purely digital solutions. It should not be surprising that this is not bereft of environmental impact. Therefore, it is crucial that organisations that want to run sustainable businesses should be aware of that aspect of their IT systems. They have to make conscious decisions while considering new solutions, system design, or infrastructure. 

Current CO2 Emission in ICT

Last year, I came across several articles that made me think about the impact that the digital world has on the real one. We tend to believe that everything virtual, non-material is safe, and has no impact on the environment we live in. But that is obviously not the case. 

One of the articles I familiarised myself with was published in Rolling Stone in May 2019. The article describes the impact of streaming on the music industry. It turns out that CDs are on the decline andconsequently, the production of plastic is at its lowest. Factories do not waste energy on producing discs, trucks don't carry them between factories, distribution centres and finally to stores. Theoretically, everything should be fine. In addition, we will not suffer from the plastic trash of abandoned and broken discs later penetrating our environment.  

However, this trend does not come without a cost. Statistics for the USA show that although usage of plastic decreased from 61m kg (2000) to 8m kg yearly (2013-2016), greenhouse gas emission increased a loti.e. 200k-350k tonnes of CO2eThis happened due to the energy needed for downloading tracks onto MP3 players. It ibelieved that emissions for streaming services may be even higher. According to the article, it should take 27 streams of an album to equal the production of the compact disc. Well, I was surprised too. We also have to consider the fact that, right now, music is cheaper and therefore more accessible than ever. Millions of new accounts are opened each year on any streaming platform, and the problem keeps growing. Right now, YouTube alone is supposed to be responsible for a total of 10mt of CO2 emissions each year.  

But it is not only about streaming. The role of Big Data for such industries like healthcare, retail, engineering, banking, or transportation is of the essence. In 2017, the real-time data acquired from all kinds of sensors was already responsible for 15% of global data. In different sources, you may find information that the whole information and technology (ICT) industry is currently comparable to the airline industry, and is responsible for 2-3% of global greenhouse emissions. It is more than obvious that data technology will play even more important roles in our lives in the future. 

Projections for the Future

The IDC report sponsored by Seagate predicts that the global datasphere will skyrocket from 33 Zettabytes (2018) to 175 Zettabytes (2025)This may be the first time when you’re seeing the word zettabyteIt’s equal to a trillion gigabytesThe study shows that, in the enterprise world, the key industriesi.e. financial services, manufacturing, healthcare, as well as media and entertainment, are currently responsible for approximately 48% of the enterprise datasphere. This number will continue to grow, and by 2025 the data processed by them will increase by between 25-36%. Interestingly, the IDC predicts that 49% of the world’s stored data will reside in public cloud environments. 

So, it’s no surprise that Nature predicts networks and data centres to be the two main areas in the ICT sector where power consumption will heavily increase in the futureLet us take a look at the research done by Anders Andrae and Thomas Edler, to which the Rolling Stone article also refers. According to them, in the worst case scenario, the whole ICT sectomay be responsible for 21% of the world’s power consumption, with data centres contributing more than third of that number. 

This is a significant change and what is more, these forecasts were made before the COVID-19 era. Now, as a result of COVID-19, businesses are adjusting to new circumstances. Millions of people will work remotely, using all kinds of virtual means like daily video conferencing,  workshopsand digital boards, digital document repositories, analyses of bigger and bigger data sets. The impact will be significant 

Luckily, multiple countries and businesses have recently started to understand the potential consequences. 

Growing Awareness

Many countries started to require sustainability annual reports from enterprises. Since 2019, organisations in the UK must include their energy usage, carbon dioxide emissions and energy efficiency measures in the reports they send to state institutionsThe UK Government claims it wants businesses to improve their energy efficiency by at least 20by 2030. 

Big companies feel obliged to reduce their carbon footprint. This means they need to find ways to reduce power usagee.g. by optimising the data centres they utiliseIn 2018, 86% oS&P 500 Index companies released their sustainability reports, so it’s clear that this is becoming the norm. 

Spotify released its first annual sustainability report in 2017. The following year, the company declared that it aims to achieve carbon neutrality. It wants to achieve this goal by moving its infrastructure to the Google Cloud Platform (GCP). You may read in their report:  

The availability of renewable energy varies across these locations, but in all cases, Google has worked to put more renewable energy on the local grid through such projects as new solar and offshore wind power deals. These local investments have a positive impact on the direct renewable energy that Spotify uses in those locations. 

Finally, in 2019, Spotify decommissioned all its data centres 

Google is not the only one who wants to power its infrastructure with renewable energy. Apple, Amazon (howeverGreenpeace claims that Amazon is breaking the commitment) and Microsoft committed to 100of renewable energy use in the coming years. As an example, two new Microsoft data centres located in Arizona will be powered entirely by renewable energy 

Optimised Solutions

However, let us step aside from the key players on the market—software companies should contribute to the positive change as well. They can do so by improving existing clients infrastructure and its usage, as well as proposing better alternatives to limit the environmental footprint. Designing new solutions should not only focus on software and its functionality but also on the allocation of resourcesand their efficient usage during the lifetime of the system or product. 

Optimised solutions are not only about the infrastructurethe way the system functionality is designed matters too. In their studyChrist Priest and his team focused on YouTube and its music videos which are responsible for approximately 27% of all the views on the platform. They assumed that part of them are just played in the background, and therefore the video stream could be automatically replaced with an audio stream. They analysed three scenarios where 10%, 25% and 50% of music content is played as audio-onlyThe conclusion was that just with that single change, the platform’s total gas emissions could be reduced by between 1% and 5%. This translates to a 117-586K tonne reduction of CO2 per year. 

How to measure the emissions? The problem is not trivial. For traditional data centres, you can attempt to measure your local power consumption and translate it into the emissions your organisation may be responsible for. It is worth mentioning that, for traditional data centres, cooling can consume up to half of the energy. 

But what about cases when companies decided to move data to the cloud? First of allthe vast majority of cloud solutions are better for the environment than any traditional on-premise data centre. This is because organisations that maintain them, i.e. Google, Amazon, or Apple, are constantly looking for optimisations and are upgrading their infrastructure all the timeIt is in their interests to improve the workload utilisation rate or apply modern ultra-cooling facilities. This is the core of their businesslimiting their power consumption allows them to save more money 

PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) is a metric used to judge the efficiency of a data centre. The smaller the number, the better. This is the ratio between the total amount of consumed energy and the energy used purely for computational purposes. The big players like Google, Facebook, or Yahoo can be efficient and score around 1.1 or 1.2 for their large data centres, whereas the average for the industry is close to 2. The latter basically means that half of the energy is wasted and spent on other non-computational operations, e.g. cooling. 

Another interesting fact is that in January this year,Microsoft released a new tool to estimate carbon emissionsThe new Sustainability Calculator can help enterprises directly estimate the environmental impact of their data sets and IT infrastructure in Azure.  

The calculator translates customers’ consumption of Azure resources to greenhouse gas emissions, measured in total metric tonnes of their carbon equivalent. This is achieved by estimating the energy needed for hosting the data centres and for transferring the data on the Internet. This sounds very promising and it will be interesting to see how it is going to develop over time. 

Summary

The green aspect of business will be more and more important as it affects our everyday lives and impacts how the organisations are seen in public. Investment in sustainability is rare occasion wheorganisations are able to do something positive, while optimising their spending and improving their budgets at the same time. The fewer resources you use, the smaller bills you will pay. Digital is better when you use it wisely. This provides a big incentive for businesses to deal with the carbon footprint of data. 

The GHG or carbon footprint could be an integral part of the requirements for the creation or update of IT systems. Especially for enterprise solutions, where the scale really matters. The concept of sustainability requirements is not new, and you can find an idea for a sustainability requirements framework dating back to 2014. However, it seems that it has been overlooked. Or, to put it differently now may be the right time to play closer attention to such requirements 

So, how to approach this, what strategy to take, whether to migrate to the cloud, and, if yes, which infrastructure provider to chooseAn experienced IT partner can help you to answer these questions. 

Data Driven Organisation Blog Ebook 416X300
Łukasz Mielczarek Senior Business Analyst

Senior Business Analyst with over 15 years of experience in software development. He tries to understand how digital tools will impact our work and lives in the future. 

See all Łukasz's posts

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