More than half of the digital data firms generate is collected, processed and stored for single-use purposes. Often, it is never re-used. This could be your multiple near-identical images held on Google Photos or iCloud, a business’s outdated spreadsheets that will never be used again, or data from internet of things sensors that have no purpose.
This “dark data” is anchored to the real world by the energy it requires. Even data that is stored and never used again takes up space on servers – typically huge banks of computers in warehouses. Those computers and those warehouses all use lots of electricity.
This is a significant energy cost that is hidden in most organisations. Maintaining an effective organisational memory is a challenge, but at what cost to the environment?
In the drive towards net zero many organisations are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. Guidance has generally centred on reducing traditional sources of carbon production, through mechanisms such as carbon offsetting via third parties (planting trees to make up for emissions from using petrol, for instance).
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A digital carbon footprint
While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy industries, the processing of digital data is already comparable to these sectors and is still growing. In 2020, digitisation was purported to generate 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Production of digital data is increasing fast – this year the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (that is: 97 trillion gigabytes) of data. By 2025, it could almost double to 181 zettabytes. It is therefore surprising that little policy attention has been placed on reducing the digital carbon footprint of organisations.