Wednesday, 24 January 2024

Is dark data killing the planet?

We’re all aware of the need to reduce our use of paper. However, what about reducing our use of our electronic file storage systems? Is dark data killing the planet?

Does your organisation have a problem with dark data? That’s the single-use electronic content that we save in datacentres and server rooms – draining energy and adding to our carbon footprint even when that data won’t see the light of day again.


We’re all aware of the need to reduce our use of paper in order to be more efficient and reduce our carbon footprint. However, what about reducing our use of our electronic file storage systems? How proactively does your organisation strive for reductions here?

If you don’t yet have a proactive policy for reducing electronic storage, you are not alone. Writing in the Conversation last year, two professors from Loughborough University explained that “More than half the digital data firms generate is collected, processed and stored for single-use purposes. Often, it is never reused.” 


Our digital data addiction

In the article, Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson argued strongly the case for a digital decarbonisation. They pointed out that, “Even data that is stored and never used again takes up space on servers – typically huge banks of computers in warehouses. Those computers and those warehouses all use lots of electricity.”

In fact, it is estimated that datacentres are responsible for as much as 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As a proportion of the US total emissions, this figure is even higher (5 percent), given the number of datacentres located there. 

What’s more, the energy consumption of data centres is rising exponentially. By 2026, the energy consumption of datacentres is expected to rise to 1,000TWh and by 2030 it’s predicted to hit 2,500TWh.

That’s because, as Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson explain, the quantity of digital data we are saving is growing exponentially. In 2022, the world generated 97 trillion gigabytes (or 97 zettabytes) of data. That’s expected to double to 181 zettabytes by 2025.


Do we need a digital decarbonisation?

If datacentres continue to use non-renewable electricity as an energy source, the carbon footprint of their energy consumption is expected to quadruple by mid-century. Much is made by the tech giants of their desire to use renewable energy to power their datacentres. However, renewables today account for very little of the overall energy consumed. 

Too much of the corporate world’s carbon reduction efforts rely on carbon offsetting rather than directly doing the difficult work of energy reduction and transition.

Yet, it seems from the work of Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson that many organisations have a very simple solution to reducing their carbon footprints: a digital decarbonisation through the reduction of digital data storage.

And the great news – lowering the amount of digital data you store will save you money too!

Given the exponentially rising quantities of digital data storage and its associated energy use and carbon footprint, they argue, “It is surprising that so little policy attention has been placed on reducing the digital carbon footprint of organisations.”


The myth of the paperless office

There is some irony to this. For years, we’ve been trying to reduce our use of paper in the office in order to reduce our environmental impact. The paper industry is a high consumer of energy. Its global carbon footprint is around 2 percent of the global total. However, in Europe, the majority of the energy used comes from renewable sources (easier to achieve when you have forest lands for solar and wind power and a ready supply of biofuels).

What’s more, paper is a natural product. Forests around the world are maintained to supply timber to the industry. Once printed, a book is effectively a carbon store for the duration of its lifetime. By contrast, your digital data is creating a carbon footprint for the duration of its lifetime. 

And, when it comes to end of life, paper has one of the highest recycling rates of any material. This is a big contrast to the problematic extraction of precious resources for computer components and the difficult disposal issues surrounding electronic waste. 


What can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?

Of course, there are more arguments for digitalisation than its environmental benefits. These are vastly outweighed by the agility, productivity, operational efficiency and collaboration benefits that digitalisation brings.

However, from the work of Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson, it seems clear that we must do more to consider its environmental impacts. 

To mitigate the environmental impacts, organisations can deploy a number of tactics, including: 

•    Choose a datacentre provider which is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of its datacentres. For example, Microsoft has committed to being carbon negative by 2030. 

•    There’s no need to save everything. Use software to aggregate data prior to saving, so that data is pre-processed before disappearing into your storage vaults. 

•    Know what data you are saving and why. A good information strategy (such as that underpinned by ISO 27001) will help you plot which data assets your organisation holds, where and why, as well as the risk associated with them.

•    Adopt of policy of defensible deletion, that is, deleting the information it is not essential to your business to hold. This is a key tenet of good information governance and should be an important part of your organisational risk management.

•    Ensure that staff collaborate on documents rather than saving individual copies. As well as being much better for version control and ease of collaboration, Microsoft Teams is a great way to work together on documents. There is no need to keep multiple copies of documents locally. In fact, there is good reason not to do so. The energy efficiency of the big data centre operators will be much higher than your local servers!

•    Encourage staff to have a clear out. Get people thinking about the digital data they hold. Is it necessary? If not, there’s no need to hold onto it. Encouraging this behaviour will get staff thinking about their own, personal datacentre carbon footprint as well. None of us probably need those 47 nearly identical versions of each of our holiday snaps!


What next?

If you would like any support and advice about optimising your own cloud storage, data processing or information governance policies, please reach out to the Grant McGregor team.

Call us: 0808 164 4142

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Further reading

You can find more information about tech topics on the Grant McGregor blog:

•    2024 Tech Predictions: What cyber security challenges will we be facing in 2024?

•    Can we really achieve Net Zero in our data centres?

•    Building a Greener Business through Technology

•    Best practice tips for securing your cloud

•    How can organisations optimise their digitalisation and cloud initiatives?