Sustainability Blog

Decarbonizing Dark Data

By Apurva Gosalia - Oct 03, 2022

Companies generate vast amounts of digital data. More than half of it is collected, processed, stored and never used again. Outdated spreadsheets, data from Internet of Things sensors, autosaved document backups, cloud pictures. This so-called “dark data” requires huge amounts of energy to power and cool the server farms where it’s stored. But dark data has a significant yet hidden cost to the environment.

The generation of digital data could reach 181 trillion gigabytes by 2025, almost double the current 97 trillion gigabytes. Data centers are responsible for 2.5% of all human-induced carbon dioxide, a greater carbon footprint than the aviation industry at 2.1%. 

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With this in mind, it’s surprising that policymakers pay little attention to reducing organizations’ digital carbon footprints, write Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson of Loughborough University, in an article for The Conversation.

Jackson and Hodgkinson point out that climate change activists mostly focus on limiting transport and energy emissions. But the emissions profile of digital data processing is comparable and is still growing. 

“In the drive toward net zero, many organizations are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. Guidance has generally centered on reducing traditional sources of carbon production, through mechanisms such as carbon offsetting via third parties,” they write.

Digital Decarbonization

To help reduce an organization’s carbon footprint, the authors have introduced the idea of “digital decarbonization”. By this, they don’t mean using phones, computers, sensors and other digital technologies to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint. Rather, they are referring to reducing the carbon footprint of digital data itself. It is key to recognize that digitization is not itself an environmental issue, but there are huge environmental impacts that depend on how we use digital processes in daily workplace activities.

The authors have created a tool to calculate an organization’s data carbon cost. They found a 100-employee data-driven business generates almost 3,000 gigabytes of dark data per day. Storing this data for a year generates as much carbon as flying from London to New York six times. Currently, companies produce 1.3 billion gigabytes of dark data a day – that’s more than 3 million London to New York flight, according to the article.

The rapid growth of dark data raises questions about the efficiency of current digital practices. In a recent study in the Journal of Business Strategy, the authors identified ways to help organizations reuse digital data and highlight pathways for them to follow when collecting, processing and storing new digital data. They hope that this could reduce dark data production and contribute to the digital decarbonization movement. 

This is also true for lubricant companies. They’ve rightly started on the path to carbon neutrality with their products, as well as within their organization.

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