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Digital pollution: data centers and private use, the same battle!

Due to the significant rise in the use of digital technology in our daily lives, data centers – Internet data storage centers – have become highly energy-intensive. With global warming being so topical, those working in the digital industry are endeavoring to reduce the impact of data centers. What actions are you taking?

Since the turn of the century, with the massively widespread use of the Internet, the introduction of smartphones, big data and social media, the energy consumption of the digital sector has increased by 8.5% per year and could account for 20% of global electricity consumption (conservative estimate) or 50% (worst-case scenario) by 2030, according to a study conducted by the French nonprofit ‘The Shift project’. A third of this energy consumption can be attributed to data centers. There are nearly 5,000 of these giant digital data storage servers worldwide.

The result is that the entire digital sector (manufacturing and use of servers, networks, terminals, etc.) represents almost 4% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Free cooling

Comprising thousands of computers and hard drives operating round-the-clock, data centers are particularly energy intensive as they require permanent cooling. Cooling accounts for a third of the energy consumed by these mega servers. To counteract global warming, the giants of the digital sector introduced a greening strategy several years ago, with Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft taking the lead. The first solution, free cooling, to reduce the use of air conditioning, involves a move towards natural cooling resources: outside air during the day, evacuation of heat at night. This is the reason why a number of data centers are located in cold countries. For example, Facebook manages a significant proportion of its data in Lulea, Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, and Microsoft has opted for sea water cooling by submerging a data center capsule off the coast of Scotland.

A move towards green data centers

At the same time, the Big Four tech companies have been striving to promote renewable energies for the past 5 years. Today, over half of Google’s data centers are supplied by renewable energies, whilst Apple has announced it will be investing 300 million dollars up to 2022 to help its Chinese subcontractors switch to renewable energies.

Microsoft aims to reach 60% green energy by the end of the year. Microsoft CEO, Brad Smith, plans to speed up the company’s energy transition. The firm’s next ten-year plan should see a 75% reduction in CO2 emissions, by integrating at least 70% of renewable energy into its process by 2030.

Sending a 1 MB email is the same as using a 60-watt bulb for 25 minutes. This equates to 20 grams of CO2 emitted.

What can we do as individuals?

The leading companies in the digital sector now seem to have grasped what is at stake. However, the general public are not 100% aware of the full implications. Whilst the material aspects of digital pollution are now known and understood (fight against planned obsolescence, equipment recycling, only printing if necessary), the virtual component of this pollution caused by the exponential distribution of data and data storage is largely unknown. The figures are enlightening: every hour, more than 10 billion emails are sent around the world. This equates to a consumption of 4,000 tons of oil, which in turn equates to 4,000 return flights between Paris and New York! In addition, a study conducted by the WWF revealed that one day spent working on a computer consumes the equivalent of 80 electric light bulbs and equates to a 9km car journey in terms of CO2 emissions.

Therefore, to take effective action, we need to streamline our use of digital technology in our professional and personal lives.

In practice, the “Into life” to-do list suggests 5 simple ways to immediately reduce your digital pollution:

  • Sort and delete emails you no longer require to prevent them from being stored on a server;
  • Uninstall applications that you do not use or do not use very often from your smartphone;
  • Archive your personal photos and videos on dedicated hard drives or USB sticks rather than in the cloud;
  • Delete your old social media posts;
  • Use a responsible search engine (Lilo, Ecosia, etc.): every search made helps to fund social and environmental projects.

What about ATR?

We set ourselves the objective of becoming carbon neutral as a company by 2030. We aim to achieve this by reducing our company emissions to the fewest possible, through a significant investment programme (including infrastructure investments to limit our on-site energy consumption) and compensating the remainder through offsets.

 

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