Report: Worldwide data upkeep is contributing to climate change more than you’d think


The percentage of all data ever created that's now sitting in a "cyber landfill."

Hewlett Packard / Bloomberg

Volker Schlichting / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Conversations around cutting energy consumption for a greener future don’t often include the digital space. But research shows that energy consumption from data storage and general internet upkeep is growing at an alarming rate that could quickly become a problem if it continues unchecked. And deleting your emails won’t be enough to solve it.

We need to take control of our data usage — In order to fight climate change, we’re going to need to make monumental changes to the way we consume energy, including in the way we treat data. Right now, big tech companies are doing their best to offset energy consumption by buying more renewable energy. But that strategy won’t work for long: according to experts, there eventually won’t be enough renewable energy left for these companies to buy up to match their consumption.

In order to get ahead of this quickly growing problem, we’ll need to overhaul the way we store and access our data. That’s a big problem to tackle.

Data upkeep consumes tons of energy — Servers use large amounts of energy to upkeep the world’s data both old and new. Those emails you deleted last week might not be sitting in your inbox anymore, but copies of them still exist on servers around the world, waiting for retrieval. The amount of energy used to keep the ghost of that single email alive is very, very small — but it adds up when you consider that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day.

Staggering growth is expected — Emissions from data usage could swiftly run out of control, especially with such an uptick in cloud computing and artificial intelligence. According to research from Hewlett Packard, data centers around the world use about 2 percent of energy today. By 2030, that's expected to grow to 8 percent — as much energy as the entire airline industry uses each year. And 94 percent of the data ever created isn’t being used at all; it’s just sitting in what’s known as a “cyber landfill.” That landfill data is still using energy, too.

Kirk Bresniker, chief architect at HP, told Bloomberg the tech industry is kind of “flying blind” when it comes to understanding just how much data storage is contributing to climate change. One thing’s certain: unless tech companies make meaningful change to data storage soon, this will only continue to get worse.