3 Things You Need to Know About The Sustainability of Big Data

The impact of digital life on the environment is a tricky and often understudied topic, but also one that needs to be asked about, especially given the exponential growth of data being produced and stored. What is the sustainability of big data?

The Internet is a big “consumer” of energy. According to Visual Capitalist in 2020, there were 240,000 transactions per minute on Venmo, 6,659 parcels per minute shipped by Amazon, and as many as 208,333 users, also per minute, connected on Zoom.

On a second look, it is not only a question of “quantity”. There has been a substantial change in the amount of data stored in recent years. Until the 2000s, platforms such as Word or PDF documents were the only giants in the online world. Today, we have access to much more digital content; just think of databases like Wikipedia and Youtube, or the enormous amount of data stored by Social Networks.

These platforms are only expected to increase within the next years, especially taking into account the exponential growth of digitalization in many areas, from the business world to our own homes, and within city management. Not to mention the multiplication of devices, which increased fivefold in the last decade.

The debate surrounding 5G networks has become especially heated in the past years. This network promises a greater bandwidth and higher download speeds. It would not exclusively be available to our cell phones, but also to laptops and desktop computers. Simultaneously competing with fiber internet and opening new markets such as the Internet of Things (IoT).

It is estimated for the number of connected devices to exceed the number of the global population by three times in 2023 and will continue to grow exponentially.

Therefore, the amount of energy that needs to be obtained “off the grid” to facilitate this is expected to increase massively as well, causing an environmental impact only a few seem to take seriously.

It is important to question: What is the environmental cost of digital life? What are the big players doing about it and are their strategies effective?

The Energy and Environmental Cost of Digital Life

It is complex to clearly and accurately estimate the impact of digital life on the environment, without neglecting the undeniable usefulness that digital networks and devices have in our daily lives.

In addition to making our lives easier, some services have made it possible to reduce energy consumption by optimizing industrial processes or regulating urban traffic (Google Maps). Moreover, when we were forced to change our daily routine due to COVID-19, digital devices and networks enabled smart working and e-learning which not only curbed the spread of the virus but had a positive impact on pollutant emissions caused by heating and transportation.

All positive impacts, but what is the cost?

1. ICT and Sustainability: Data Centers

However, the use of data contains several controversial aspects, most prominently the energy that is required to store and process the data, to manage the infrastructure that supports this Net.

As early as 2018, it was estimated for the energy consumption within the Data Center to be higher than that of some countries (about 200 TWh per year). Carbon emissions are notably higher too, at approximately 0.3 percent of total emissions, while the CO2 emissions of the entire ICT sector in 2019 were equivalent to 2 percent of global emissions. These impressive numbers are matched by the demand for the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) sector energy, estimated at about 20% of the global demand by 2030.

Today, it is known that the two major tech companies (Google and Amazon) combined, own 60 or more Data Centers, or other huge facilities that require energy to operate.

Apart from the negative impact of these facilities on the surrounding ecosystem, they have increasing environmental costs for the preservation and transfer of stored data.

Starting in 2007, Google promised to make its Cloud Services “Carbon Neutral,” designing and implementing an intelligent platform based on the use of renewable energy, while Facebook began experimenting with a new system, “Autoscale,” by which it sought to optimize server usage, especially during low traffic hours.

Amazon also seems to move towards greater environmental sustainability of data servers. In 2014, they started to encourage the use of renewable energy within their facilities and assured to employ 100% renewable energy by 2025%.

But what commitments by the major players of the WEB have truly fulfilled their sustainability goals?

Ever since 2010, Greenpeace has been monitoring the actions and performance of the Internet’s big players. By doing so, they are aiming to analyze and reduce the impact on the environment that the IT sector is causing.

They are also demanding more transparency in energy policies, an incentive for the use of renewable sources, as well as a real and concrete commitment to the adoption of sustainable business models.

According to data from “Clicking Clean: Who is Winning the Race to Build a Green Internet“, a report released in 2019, some companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google are reporting improved green energy policies: Apple provides around 83 percent, Facebook 67 percent, and Google approximately 56 percent clean energy for their operations.

Less promising, however, is the performance of other big tech companies. In fact, the report states how Amazon – with their Cloud Amazon Web Services – has basically turned its back on their green commitment despite the promises posted on their site:  

“Sustainability in the Cloud Amazon Web Services (AWS) is committed to running our business in the most environmentally friendly way possible and achieving 100% renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure.”

Source: Amazon website

According to Greenpeace, their strategy is particularly controversial when considering the expansion of their infrastructure in various states. For instance in Virginia where energy pollution is quite common, which confuses the customers with respect to its energy policies.

For similar reasons, Wired ‘flunks’ Jeff Bezos’ enormous organisation by rating it with a C.

  • Overall Greenness: C-
  • Energy Efficiency: B
  • Transparency: F
  • Technological Innovation: Unknown
  • Total Renewable Energy Portfolio: 1.6 GW

Greenpeace also judges Netflix to have failed the standard requirement, a video streaming giant, which is estimated by 2020 Cisco Network to be responsible for approximately 80% of total internet traffic.

Despite their commitment in 2015 to counterbalance their carbon footprint, it seems that Netflix still hasn’t included a sustainable energy policy. The company buys emission offset credits rather than invest in clean energy.

There is no denying of the role Netflix is playing in the counterculture by offering documentaries and insights that challenge mainstream thinking. Such as the acclaimed Social Dilemma, which discusses the role of social media in constructing our opinion and their focus on generating profits; or documentaries – some of them made by companies such Canon or Swarovski in the form of branded content. However, Netflix still has much work to do in their own journey towards sustainability, emphasising the indirect use of electricity.

“Most importantly, we’re inspired by the power of all the great storytellers we’ve met who are inspiring sustainability values for Netflix fans around the world through entertainment. There’s a lot more to do and we’re encouraged by all our friends in the space who are working to take us one step further, all the time.”

Source: Netflix website

It is therefore no coincidence that Greenpeace ranks Netflix with a “D” (as is Oracle), while Google’s video platform, YouTube, is awarded an “A.” 

Also performing less good are Hp and IBM, which have obtained an overall ranking score of “C”. The share of clean energy used is 50 percent (Hp) and 29 percent (IBM) of the total, respectively, with Hp getting a “D” for the transparency of its energy policies while IBM stops at a “C” for the same parameter.

2. Bitcoin, trackers and AI: all digitally born services come at a cost that are not only economic

As seen, Data Center’s have a fairly significant energy and environmental burden, but the impact of the WEB on the natural ecosystem also affects products that came into being with the very birth of the WEB.

This is the case with cryptocurrencies, whose “operation” is quite complex and requires a huge use of energy. The mining of bitcoin, in fact, can only be done by many computers with large computing capacities that use energy to run and to cool themselves, not to mention the fact that the “mining” process is done on server-farms generally located in countries, such as China and Mongolia. Here, the cost of energy is low and where restrictive policies for greenhouse gas emissions are almost non-existent.

Calculating the actual consumption of the most important crypto-asset PoW systems is complex. Although as early as 2016 some research estimated the energy expenditure of the six major crypto networks equal to that of Belgium. However these calculations are often the source of controversy – as estimates tend to represent the view of those who generate them. IEA claimed that electricity consumption for bitcoin production was around 45 TWh (45 billion watts per hour) in 2018. To understand what we are talking about: you consume 1 kWh (kilowatts per hour) when you run, say, a 1,000-watt vacuum cleaner for an hour.

In the same line is Artificial Intelligence (AI), whose innovative neural network models require significant availability of computational resources for their development, which, in turn, employ large amounts of energy to operate. As a result, the learning process they require has a significant environmental burden as demonstrated by University of Massachusetts research that speaks of carbon dioxide emissions five times greater than that of a car over its average lifetime. The number is confirmed by the ITIF itself, and while the benefits for Ai are enormous, its energy and environmental costs remain staggering.

Another “ungreen industry” seems to be online advertising, which has grown exponentially in recent years. But does online advertising really have a significant impact on web energy consumption?

There are many contributing impacts, just think of the fact that online ads use graphics, videos and animations that consume more than other content, and even though an advertisement occupies a relatively small space on the page, it requires an intense computational process (CPU). Then there are the trackers, which are necessary to track user behaviors, which greatly affect the average loading time of sites, the amount of data downloaded, and the amount of active connections. According to a study conducted by the company Solar Winds in 2018, the loading time of a web page among the top 50 sites was 9.46 s with trackers and 2.69 s without.

This reasoning exists without taking into account that the amount of online ads produced is proportionally very high compared to the final number of transactions: millions of viewings are needed to conclude a sale. There is also the phenomenon of fraudulent clicks operated as much by bots as by humans to increase the click through rate (estimate: 23% of total traffic generated by ADV). The impact on the online advertising environment is therefore multidimensional.

3. Sustainable solutions that we can adopt

Considering what we have seen so far, it is clear that the burden of the Web on the environment is important and no longer negligible. Therefore, new models need to be adopted that promote an eco-friendly approach.

There is some progress made by the Internet Giants, yet their efforts still do not seem sufficient at the current moment, especially considering the urgency that many environmental issues require.

Also read: La Comunicazione “che Fa Bene” alle Tech Companies Fa Male Alla Società?

There are initiatives realised, such as Ecosia the first B Corporation-Certified search engine that offsets the energy impact produced by power plants. It has already garnered 15 million users worldwide. As well as the company Fair phone, which fights against the planned obsolescence of devices and is committed to recycling raw materials collected from used devices. Unfortunately, these are companies still too isolated and generate marginal realities. They often are unknown to the greater public.

Authorities could adopt strong incentive regulations in order to impose an environmental and ecological standard that avoids indiscriminate energy consumption and promotes research into more efficient technologies.

Un contributo può venire anche dagli stessi utenti che, prendendo coscienza della problematica, possono adottare dei comportamenti più virtuosi come, ad esempio, cancellare mail di spam o indirizzi duplicati dalla propria rubrica, conservare i file su dischi rigidi esterni anziché sul cloud o disattivare il Wi-Fi o il Gps sul proprio smartphone quando non utilizzato. Ciò che serve, in conclusione, è un approccio sistemico che tenga conto di ogni aspetto e che veda la partecipazione di tutti, dai Big della rete all’utente finale.

The contribution can also come from the users themselves who can become more aware of the issue and adopt more virtuous behaviors. For example by deleting spam mails or duplicate addresses from contacts, storing files on external hard drives instead of the cloud, or turning off Wi-Fi or Gps on their smartphones when not in use. What is needed, in conclusion, is a systemic approach that takes every aspect into account and sees the participation of everyone from the network giants to the end user.


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