A Growing Digital Waste Cloud

While the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano expanded for a relatively short time over Europe and then slowly disappeared, another cloud, this one unseen, is rising steadily over the entire world.

Digital waste has grown exponentially over the last decade as storage of data — such as e-mails, pictures, audio and video files, etc. — has shifted to the online sphere.

The advent of web services that allow users to upload files has made it possible to leave behind (most likely in landfills) tapes and discs and instead throw all of our recorded information into one big digital cloud of computers.

Cloud computing refers to today’s predominant infrastructure and business model whereby information, software and other resources are delivered on-demand to users via the Internet. An ever-scalable collection of energy sucking data centres and server farms is required to deliver these services.

But the Internet saves energy, right?

According to Joseph Romm’s 1999 seminal work, The Internet Economy and Global Warming, direct sales to consumers and centralized digital inventories of goods could lead to dramatic reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 2010.

However, things turned out differently. Each day we generate more and more data — your digital footprint, so to speak, requires huge amounts of server space and energy. A part of that digital footprint may be described as digital waste — just think about all the data that you have created online that you no longer use.

Almost everything we do online increases our carbon footprint. As a perverse example, Antivirus Company MacAffee reports that the electricity needed just to transmit the trillions of spam e-mails sent every year is equivalent to powering two million homes in the United States and generates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as that produced by three million cars.

According to a recent Greenpeace report, Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change, the electricity consumed by cloud computing globally will increase from 632 billion kilowatt hours in 2007 to 1,963 billion kWh by 2020.

Keen on energy saving

Quite clearly we cannot continue on this path and thankfully there are opportunities available to large IT companies to grow responsibly without fuelling climate change.

Google was among the first Internet companies to take action to reduce energy consumption at its data centres. It is trying to promote efficient computing and seeking to increase its use of renewable energy. Along with many of the leading IT firms, Google is a member of the Climate Savers Computing Initiative.

Over in Europe, some server operators, like the German web-space provider Strato (one of Europe’s largest), have done their calculations and recognized that they could reduce energy use by adopting high performance energy efficient hardware and software, as well as precise cooling systems that use sensors and special “cool corridors” to moderate temperature.

In 2008, Strato began reducing their CO2 emissions by switching to renewable energy to power their servers. They are now members of the Green Grid, a consortium of IT companies and professionals who want to improve energy efficiency in data centres and business computing worldwide. The organization wants to green the IT world by uniting “global industry efforts to standardize on a common set of metrics, processes, methods and new technologies to further its common goals”.

And if CO2 reduction and saving energy is not enough incentive for more companies to plug into the initiative, no doubt peaking oil supplies and rising oil prices will spur the Green Grid’s growth.

Hardware is only part of the problem

Most of the solutions on offer involve buying ever more efficient servers and enhancing the infrastructure. However, software developers also face the challenge of creating software that runs ‘greenly’ — i.e., sleekly and ultra-efficiently. A program is considered to be highly efficient when the software code is written in a short, effective way, thereby avoiding redundant calculations that waste CPU power.

A related issue is that of proprietary formats for documents, such as those for Mircrosoft Word or PDFs, as examples. If you have been working with computers for years, you probably have lots of documents on media that you can no longer open any more since your current software is not backward compatible. Jan Wildeboer, an open source evangelist, describes proprietary formats as “digital waste”.  He is most concerned about all the documents maintained by public bodies in proprietary formats and worries that unless we move to open standards all that data will be locked up forever and potentially inaccessible in the future if formats continue to evolve.

At the personal level we also need to be aware. Today, we are all simply so excited about being part of the virtual revolution in the digital age that few have stopped to think about the questions of e-waste and digital waste — the topics we have addressed in this ‘waste week’ series of articles.

We may not worry about what happens to our old computers or hand held devices like mobile phones and iPods. We probably too easily throw out those old ink cartridges with our regular trash, when we could take them to be recycled. We rarely, if ever, spare a thought for our digital footprints.

But maybe we should. It is interesting to ponder whether when we close down our online accounts, we could request that our files be removed, so as to free up server space for others? Could we specify that our digital waste be automatically removed after a certain period of non-use? That will probably never be possible, but we do need to think more carefully about the ramifications of this ever-growing computing cloud and the question of its long-term sustainability.

Just how much server space will humanity need in 2050?

Creative Commons License
A Growing Digital Waste Cloud by Stephan Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    Thanks, Stephan, for a thought-provoking article. The cloud computing energy stats you provide are eye-opening, the proprietary format issues sobering.

    It seems that every time we think we’re innovating our way past the constraints of living on a finite planet our hopes are dashed and we’re forced to steer our attention toward some of the deeper assumptions that undergird our civilization:

    Are we really as separate as we’ve been conditioned to believe? Are there really no limits to our growth, digital or otherwise? Is the human ego and intellect really adequate to the task of stewarding a sustainable way of life? Are we forgetting something that is now calling for us to remember about how to live in harmony with ourselves and our home planet?

  • BrendanBarrett

    Just as a clarification, the Smart Report, upon which Greenpeace made their analysis, concluded that:
    “The ICT sector’s own emissions are expected to increase, in a business as usual (BAU) scenario, from 0.53 billion tonnes (Gt) carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2002 to 1.43 GtCO2e in 2020.”
    They argued, however, that:
    “…specific ICT opportunities identified in this (Smart) report can lead to emission reductions five times the size of the sector’s own footprint, up to 7.8 GtCO2e, or 15% of total BAU emissions by 2020.”
    Note that for this reduction to take place, the opportunities outlined in the Smart Report need to be implemented.
    The Greenpeace report is not perfectly clear with respect to their calculations and results presented and we are currently seeking further clarification. The essential point is that the Making it Green Report suggests in the table on page 6 that GHG emissions associated with data centers and telecoms alone could be as high as 1.034 gigatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) (not 1034 metric tonne carbon dioxide equivalent).
    How significant is this? Again referring to the Smart Report:
    “Current BAU scenarios predict that global emissions will rise from 40 GtCO2e emitted each year in 2002 to nearly 53 GtCO2e annually by 2020.”
    This suggests that cloud computing (data centers and telecoms) could be equivalent to almost 2% of the BAU scenario for 2020. To this should be added other ICT sectors. The challenge therefore is to actually implement the recommendations made in the Smart report so as to bring about reductions in overall emissions, and to also improve the performance of cloud computing so that its share of total emissions does not increase over time.
    It would be really interesting to hear more from Greenpeace on this data and whether our intepretation of their figures is correct.

  • Iain Elliot


    Although I agree with most of the article there seems to be some confusion about cloud computing which I believe is significantly greener than traditional computing. (Disclaimer, I work in the ICT industry for IBM although this is a private posting)

    For those not familiar with the term the idea is to centralize computing services and provide access to those services via the internet. For example, rather than doing a spreadsheet on your home PC you would use a simple web access device (e.g. tablet PC) and your data and the spreadsheet calculations would be done on a central server.

    It’s clearly not yet the predominant infrastructure. Most companies and households still use distributed computers. Two typical examples:
    – one of my recent clients had over 3000 computers (servers) which which were only heavily used for performance testing (four times a year) or for the year end financial consolidation (once per year) but the servers were left powered on 24 hours a day
    – I’m currently working on a dual processor PC to enter my thoughts onto this web page, my PC is less than 5% utilized but is fully powered on

    Cloud computing typically saves electricity and other resources compared to the current distributed model. This is one of the main reasons that it is becoming more popular. To take my two examples:
    – we suggested replacing the 3000 servers by cloud servers with less than 1% of the energy consumption
    – I could enter these thoughts with an iPad which uses about 2.5 watts or even a smart phone rather than my PC which probably uses about 100 watts

    So to reduce CO2 and other emissions associated with computing we should try to move towards cloud computing models. In fact this is one of the main ways that the ICT industry is proposing to reduce our environmental impact

  • PatrickMiller

    Thank you for a fascinating and honest account. There is a kind of corporate social media lobby evangelistically espousing a global ‘be there or be square’ attitude, collectively (willfully?) ignoring the energy impact, across ever-increasing and multiple platforms.

    And what a complex issue. As Iain states, cloud computing will save energy, like an escalator that doesn’t move if no one needs it. And it has room for growth; the technology will innovate further, evolve and improve. As Facebook rapidly racks up the carbon footprint equivalent to a major US city we clearly need it.

    But folk like me do upload and forget. So please audit my profile, tell me what data is wasteful, help me accept responsibility for the fact i think the service is mighty cool and will upload data in a spurt of enthusiasm for technological progress!

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