Data’s Dirty Little Secret – The Under Scrutinized Environmental Impact of Data Storage

Annalisa Kolb

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. 2023

When you think about what things harm the environment, your mind likely goes to gas-guzzling cars, single-use plastics, and cow farts. But when you’re considering your carbon footprint, the environmental impact of data storage is likely something you’ve left out. While the shows we stream, documents we download, and pictures we upload to social media may not take up storage space on our devices, the data must be stored somewhere, and that storage does not come without a cost.

What are data centers?

Whether it’s emails, websites, or online transactions, businesses need to store their digital data on servers. If a business is small, it may choose to store data in-house. But the more a business grows, the more data it generates and more servers it needs. The answer is data centers, massive buildings that house the core IT and computing services and infrastructure supporting online activity. Data centers range in size but at their largest can span over an acre.

Instead of taking up space on their properties, many businesses outsource data storage to third-party cloud storage providers. Also known as “online storage” or “public cloud storage”, users may upload any computer file to the third parties servers, which they may later download to any computer with a web browser.

The nexus between increased online activities and CO2 admissions

The convenience data centers provide does not come without a cost. Data centers require a massive amount of energy to operate, accounting for approximately 1.8 percent of all electricity used in the United States and giving off 0.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Tremendous amounts of water are also required to provide liquid cooling and produce more energy for the centers. A 2021 study revealed that over half of the centers are fully or partially powered by facilities located in areas with dangerously low water reserves.

While COVID-19 had many positive impacts on the environment, like reducing smog from car emissions, it also drove people to spend more time at home and more time using the internet. A report issued by the Shift Project found that the energy consumption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is increasing its carbon footprint amount by nine percent each year.

Wealthy countries like the United States bear the responsibility for the footprint increase due to digital overconsumption. In 2018, every American owned an average of ten digitally connected devices that consumed 140 Gigabytes of data per month compared to India, where individuals owned one device and consumed 2 Gigabytes per month. Data usage is only expected to surge in the coming years due to the increased availability of energy-intensive technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G, and augmented reality.

Global and local government action

Iceland is currently paying the price as its cold climate and open spaces have made it a prime location for data centers which is driving electricity use in the country exponentially. According to the National Energy Authority of Iceland, the energy demands from the data centers doubled from 2017 to 2018 and doubled again from 2018 to 2019.

European Union lawmakers have expressed their concern about the current impact of data centers. They are preparing to pass regulations meant to push the data center industry into adopting greener operating practices by enforcing stricter controls and imposing energy-efficient rules. EU legislators specified that they aim to make data centers carbon neutral and energy-efficient by 2030.

In the last few years, we have seen certain cities in the United States taking regulatory action against the environmental havoc data centers create. In 2018, Plattsburgh, New York became the first city in the US to place a ban on bitcoin mining. Mining is an extremely energy-intensive computing process that requires an immense amount of data use and storage. Plattsburgh became a hotbed for bitcoin miners because its hydroelectric dam produced cheap power for the area. The dam normally provided plenty of energy to power the entire town, but centers meant to store data for cryptocurrency mining quickly skyrocketed the city’s energy consumption past sustainability.

Similarly, Missoula County in Montana declared an environmental emergency to address the increasing energy cost of bitcoin mining. Missoula’s city council unanimously passed a resolution that requires new cryptocurrency mining operations to offset their immense energy consumption by funding or building new renewable energy projects. This resolution is the Counties’ first step towards its commitment for Missoula to use only clean electricity by 2030.

The likelihood and need for government and self-regulation

Digital technologies are universally recognized as essential for modern economic and social development, making data centers critical infrastructure. As our society becomes increasingly dependent on the internet, the energy required to run data centers will only continue to increase. While this may seem daunting, the potential environmental disaster posed by data centers presents a unique opportunity for legislators to pass regulations and for data centers themselves to improve self-regulation.

For example, legislators can follow Missoula County’s lead by requiring companies operating data centers to fund green energy projects. At least a small portion of the immense amount of profit these technology companies collect should be spent on making their operations more sustainable and energy-efficient. Data centers should also be legally required to track and report their environmental impact. According to Uptime’s 2021 annual Global Data Center Survey, only half of data center managers track water usage, and only thirty-three percent monitor their carbon impact or environmental waste. Consequently, climate impact is effectively unmanaged in two-thirds of data centers.

While companies like Facebook and Google have publicly pledged to improve their environmental sustainability, it is clear that their data centers’ impact on our carbon footprint is not a priority. If they don’t change that, governments will be forced to react. If this becomes the case, hundreds of cities and counties will create their own unique regulations for data centers. This could be disastrous for tech companies as they scramble to comply with many distinctive regulations. Although government action is likely inevitable, successful, well-thought-out self-regulation presents the opportunity for a much better informed and implementable sustainability structure.