Digital Footprint

While you don’t see plumes of black smoke being released by the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), you’d be wrong to assume they don’t have a significant environmental impact. Every search, click, or streamed video consume a huge amount of energy and sending a simple email has in reality a whole energy-intensive journey.

Environmental footprint of the digital sector

Data centres are the factories of the information age, their 24/7 operation makes online browsing, streaming and communication possible and ensures the permanent availability of data. To meet the growth of online traffic, the number of data centres is constantly increasing. Currently there are around 8.5 million data centres globally.

But delivering all this data requires an enormous amount of electricity to power servers along with storage equipment, backups, and power cooling infrastructures. In 2016 416 TWh of electricity was consumed by global data centres, compared to Switzerland which consumed 58 TWh of electricity the same year[1]. If the Internet were a country it would be the 3rd biggest consumer of electricity after China and the US. Today, according to l’Ademe in France (l’Agence de l’Environment et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie), the digital sector as a whole (manufacture and use of servers, networks, terminals, etc.) is responsible for 4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the airline industry.

How can we quantify this at an individual level? Estimates suggest one email usually generates 10 g of Co2 per year and globally 240 million emails are sent every minute. An email with a 1 MB attachment generates 19 g of C02. And yet, only 80% of emails are ever opened[2].

How can data centres reduce their footprint?

Supply the centres with green energy

The use of green energy to power data centres is a major way to limit their environmental impact. At the end of 2011, Facebook was the first major digital company to officially commit to 100% renewable power for its centres. There is not easy to achieve due to intermittency issues; the sun doesn’t constantly shine and the wind doesn’t always blow and there is still the issue of energy storage. This is why companies still use fossil fuel-powered energy sources as back-up and then offset these emissions. Apple and Google followed Facebook’s commitment in 2012, which we see as part public relations but also part business calculation; their growing energy needs are better served by renewable energy sources which provide energy at less volatile prices.

Source: Clicking Clean from 2017

Despite the public commitments from more than 20 of the largest Internet companies to power their digital infrastructures with 100% renewable electricity, access to renewable energy sources is still lacking. As a good example, Greenpeace recently published a report highlighting that the ‘Virgina Data Center Alley’, where many large data centres are located, are provided energy by the firm Dominion Energy, whose supply of energy includes a very disappointing 4% from renewable sources. In Asia data centres are developing at a rapid pace and the energy mix still relies heavily on high GHG emitting energies such as coal.

While the lack of investment in renewable energy by energy providers may be frustrating for customers such as tech companies, some like Apple have chosen to build their own energy production in certain places. Others signed contracts for clean energy at guaranteed rates that encourage energy companies to carry out more major renewable energy projects. Others, such as Microsoft, choose to get directly involved in project financing.

Free cooling

Many data centres nowadays use free-cooling, the use of fresh outdoor air to limit the use of artificial air conditioning. This technique reduces power consumption by about 30 to 50%. For this reason, some companies prefer to install their data centres in countries where they can easily take advantage of very low temperatures to cool their installations. Facebook opened a huge data centre in Lulea in Sweden near the Arctic Circle in 2013. More inventive options exist, demonstrated by the project Natick by Microsoft that has immersed its servers in water in the North Sea and which is also powered by some renewable energy. While some companies can freely choose where to locate their centres, this may not be the case for all. In particular, a location on national territory may be a requirement when the data is sensitive.


The development of artificial intelligence, such as that of Deep Mind, can result in better energy efficiency at data centres. Tested by Google, it allows the air conditioning level to be precisely adapted to the activity level of the installations and reduce energy waste.

Reuse of data centre heat

The electrical energy used by the installations is a considerable resource that is still under-exploited. In large data centres of nearly 10,000 m2, the rejected heat can reach 2 to 2.5 kW per m2 – a large proportion of the energy drawn is wasted as thermal energy[3]. In France, companies such as Qarnot Computing or Stimergy are specialised in valuation of digital heat. The latter has recently contributed to the heating of a Parisian swimming pool at Butte aux Cailles. At the University of Burgundy in Dijon, to heat the buildings on the 115-hectare campus, the university opted to reuse the otherwise dumped energy of the installed data centre cooling system. And recently Paris decided to manage internally its data centre for security purpose as well as managing its environmental footprint, by reusing the heat to supply the heating network of the surrounding buildings and the urban farming greenhouse installed on the roof[4].

A greener contribution

The digital sector is undeniably essential to today’s society and our dependence on the internet will continue to grow, but it also has a big environmental footprint that shouldn’t be forgotten. We see demand shifting to data providers that can provide services at a high level of energy efficiency, and with use of renewable energy sources, as corporations from all industries increase their carbon footprint reduction goals.

At a personal level we can also change some of our internet habits, by reducing the size of our emails, replace the attached document with a link to the same information, compress the attached images, keep our mailing lists up to date, and especially clean our inboxes and unsubscribe from all newsletters that we don’t read.

[1] Le Temps, 2019
[2] Le Temps, 2019
[3] Energystream, 2017
[4] Novethic, 2019

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