Data tsunami is environmental disaster in the making

Some of the world's biggest tech companies are jumping on the green bandwagon, but their efforts are unlikely to be enough.

Iain Morris, International Editor

January 17, 2020

5 Min Read
Data tsunami is environmental disaster in the making

Is 2020 the beginning of the end? Just a couple of weeks into the still-futuristic-sounding decade, it sometimes feels that way. Greta Thunberg, a teenage prophet of environmental doom, is omnipresent, admonishing world leaders and industrial tycoons for their carbon sins. Torched by continent-wide fires, Australia is becoming uninhabitable for anyone without an oxygen tank. Toxic gases are now circling the planet. "The moment of crisis has come," warned David Attenborough, the British naturalist and broadcaster, during a BBC interview this week.

Technology companies have kept a relatively low profile while this catastrophe unfolds, allowing fossil fuel industries and politicians to absorb Thunbergian flak. But the 21st century's tech addiction is not conducive to green living. In a paper published in late 2017, Anders Andrae, a researcher with China's Huawei, predicted the communications industry would use a fifth of all electricity by 2025. This would make it responsible for about 5.5% of all carbon emissions by that date.

The forecast should not really surprise anyone. Data consumption is rampant, projected on mobile networks alone to soar from about 40 exabytes a month last year to 160 in 2025, according to Sweden's Ericsson. Whether at home, in an office or walking down the street, people are hooked to their screens. Billions of devices are on overnight charge every day of the week.

Investments in the data centers needed to store and process all this digital information are rocketing. In China alone, electricity consumption by data centers will rise two thirds in the next five years, said environmental lobby group Greenpeace in a statement last September. In 2023, the industry is expected to consume 267 terawatts of electricity, more than Australia's total electricity consumption in 2018. And around 73% of China's data centers are currently powered by coal -- the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels.

On course to become one of the main villains in the climate change drama, some of the world's biggest tech firms are now desperate to show their green side. Microsoft this week became the latest, announcing plans to be "carbon negative" by 2030. By 2050, said CEO Satya Nadella, the Seattle-based software giant aims to remove from the environment all the carbon it will have generated since its founding in 1975.

Figure 1: Microsoft President Brad Smith, Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood and CEO Satya Nadella preparing to announce Microsoft's plan to be carbon negative by 2030. Microsoft President Brad Smith, Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood and CEO Satya Nadella preparing to announce Microsoft's plan to be carbon negative by 2030.

Realistic? In a detailed blog, Microsoft sets out its environmental action plan, promising -- among other things -- to shift to 100% renewable energy by 2025 and electrify its entire vehicle fleet by 2030. With new procurement processes and tools, Microsoft will also "incentivize" its suppliers to reduce their own emissions, says the company. Also, it will set up a $1 billion "climate innovation fund" to support the development of carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies.

Such lofty carbon targets will attract skepticism from Thunberg-like activists outraged by the relentless increase in emissions year after year. But Microsoft is not the sole example of a tech company with ambitious environmental goals. Vodafone, the UK-headquartered telecom operator, is targeting 100% renewable energy use by 2023, two years earlier than Microsoft, and aims to halve its carbon footprint over that same timeframe. In the UK, it already generates 8% of its electricity through wind power and recently secured planning permission for its first solar farm, which will provide all the electricity for its data centers. "We are confident we can get to 25% self-generation of electricity in the next few years and will buy the rest through renewables," said Scott Petty, Vodafone UK's chief technology officer, at a recent press event.

Welcome as these initiatives may be, they are probably insufficient. New 5G networks, especially when used with higher frequency bands, will guzzle energy like no generation before. Data volumes will mount as people immerse themselves in virtual-reality games and ultra-high-definition TV on mobile networks. Executives from companies like Cisco and Ericsson are drooling at the prospect of an "Internet of Things" that connects tens of billions of objects -- everything from a common household appliance to a sophisticated bit of military equipment.

Greenpeace lays out two scenarios for China's data center market. In the first, in which renewables continue to account for about 23% of renewable energy intake, carbon emissions from the industry will hit about 163 million tons by 2023. In the second, more optimistic vision, renewables grow to make up 30% of energy intake in the next three years. But even if this happens, it will reduce carbon emissions from China's data centers by only a tenth. In the meantime, global temperatures continue to rise inexorably. Last decade was the hottest on record, according to scientists at NASA.

The answer, of course, lies partly in a return to the halcyon days of the 1980s, when phones were strictly fixed, and social networks meant sports clubs and dinner parties. Operators could take inspiration from a 2015 Christmas campaign by Deutsche Telekom, which advised families to turn off their digital devices and enjoy "direct, interpersonal connections." With even Greta Thunberg an enthusiastic member of the Twitterati, the outlook is not auspicious.

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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