The Invisible Cost of Code

Posted by Flux on 

16 February 2021

Have you ever wondered what the ramifications of your data storage and usage are? What happens while you stream music or video, and where do your images, recipes and old emails land up? Behind these seemingly innocuous actions meant to entertain and offer convenience, are hidden environmental costs. The cloud has material substance. There are physical consequences to activity and storage in the cloud. 

The huge water, land and carbon footprints that allow these technologies to function go largely unnoticed.

Just one hour of video conferencing emits up to 1kg of carbon dioxide, requires 2 to 12 litres of water and the use of land about the size of an iPad Mini. Turning off the video for say, 15 one-hour meetings each week, would avoid the same amount of emissions emitted to charge a smartphone each night for three years.

David Cappuccio, Gartner VP and Chief of Research, says, “The amount of data created in the last year and a half is more than we collected over the last fifty years.” This amount of data is consuming massive amounts of energy and the quantity of data is increasing exponentially.

All this data requires centres or ‘server farms’ for storage and computing and these need large plots of land. Facebook just announced it is expanding its data centre in Utah, having invested  $1 billion in the facility thus far. Technology startup Lyteloop has just raised $40 billion to launch satellites that store data in space. 

In addition to land, a tremendous quantity of water is needed to cool the servers at these data centres. While a lot more energy is required to power data centres than cool them, the water usage is significant. Billions of gallons of water are used in centres that are sometimes based in dry, arid areas where water is scarce. In 2018 Microsoft launched Project Natick, where the company sank a prototype undersea data centre, which has since proven to be a success. Having dramatically reduced water usage, REIT announced last year that its data centre CyrusOne Chandler in Arizona is net water positive.  

Digital cryptocurrencies cause similar concerns.

As the hidden costs of AI and data technology move into the spotlight, companies are facing increasing societal and governmental pressures to reduce their data-related carbon emissions. Lyteloop’s space storage alternative and Microsoft’s Project Natick are examples of growing innovation in this area. Consumers can also play their part in helping to reduce their data storage and usage. 

What is your organisation doing to address the land, water and carbon footprint of the technologies you use?  

How can your organisation take advantage of the innovation opportunities in this space?

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By Faeeza Khan

Image credit: Markus Spiske

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