The Impact Of Data Centers On Global Carbon Emissions & How Removing ROT Data Can Help Reduce It

September 11, 2022

When we think of burning fossil fuels to power businesses, we think of airlines and heavy industry. It’s not short-sightedness on our behalf, the link is just easier to visualize.

In reality, if you’re a stakeholder in any kind of business, data centers should be the most important item on your agenda, since they are mostly fossil fuel-powered and operate 24 hours a day. Data centers account for around 2% of all global carbon emissions. In the US alone, 0.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to data centers.

That’s about the same as the airline industry. 

To put this into perspective, the global carbon emissions for the chemical and petrochemical industry are slightly higher at 3.6%.

So, every single oil refinery, fracking rig, and chemical plant on the planet is only slightly more impactful to global warming than data storage. That’s a worrying statistic, especially since we are on target for that 2% to rise up to 14% by 2040. And if we know anything about predictions, they tend to be on the conservative side. 

The Data Burden

Data is a growing burden on our businesses and our environment; why?

In short, data production is growing increasingly bloated and trivial, looking more like a baroque facade than an actual working data warehouse. Current estimates are that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated on a daily basis. Whether you can visualize that number or not, it’s alarming nonetheless. That number is going to rise in an unrelenting manner because clearly, data production cannot stop, it’s a fundamental aspect of what we do as humans in the 21st century. 

Of course, many organizations are moving to cloud-based data storage in an attempt to mitigate these effects and move toward an eco-friendly future. There’s an issue with this. Cloud migration can take a long time depending on the amount of data in question. Many organizations are also reluctant to migrate to an entirely cloud-based solution, for many reasons personal to said organizations. 

Data centers are here to stay for the foreseeable future. 

So, if we still want data centers to exist, what can be done about this data burden? The answer is good data governance, and clear and concise data management. It’s like recyclable materials, for decades we used plastics and rubber, then after use, simply burned them or buried them. Now, we recycle them or reduce the need for them in the first place. 

It’s the approach we need to take with data. We still need data, but the usage needs to change dramatically. 

The smaller the data warehouse, the smaller the impact on our environment. The only question now is; what data do we need to reduce to minimize our carbon footprint? 

It’s called ROT, and it’s causing serious issues within our data life. 

Redundant – Obsolete – Trivial

Data that is not absolutely essential to the day-to-day running of your business is simply sitting on a server, eating electricity, and taking up storage space. These files can take the form of duplicate documents, out-of-date files, and expired server session cookies. 

If it isn’t moving your organization forward, it’s costing you money and placing a heavy burden on the environment. 

Removing this data is a step in the right direction, it’s a process that requires a lot of departmental cooperation, and a steady hand. You can’t risk discarding vital data or deleting files that might be needed in the future. 

Every department should come together as a single entity, from marketing to product development, to legal and compliance. Individual teams need to determine if data collection in its current form is even necessary, just because we have access to certain APIs or connectors doesn’t mean we should use them.

How Long Does Data Need To Exist?

What is the lifecycle of the data we have collected?

When does it become obsolete?

These are the questions we need to answer. 

This is where an AI-driven platform like NOW Privacy comes into its own. With advanced capabilities to define and locate thousands of data types, and the ability to remove them, the platform takes care of the heavy lifting. 

This isn’t about giant swathes of data swiped away with acrimony. In the beginning, small steps can make a big impact. Data can be the bonhomie catalyst your business needs if coaxed in the right direction, it doesn’t have to be a burden. 

Truth be told, nothing happens overnight. We didn’t get into this data black hole over a careless weekend, but we must act fast on the solution. 

Investors Are Watching

Investors are now actively avoiding companies who don’t meet ESG targets, not to mention affecting valuations when it comes to IPO flotation or buyout. ROT data is absolutely front and center in the war against digital waste, and platforms like NOW Privacy are the biggest weapon against this waste. 

Data is an asset, but an asset is only useful when it’s earning a profit. If your data centers are hoarding mountains of unused data, it’s costing your business, the environment, and the future of your organization. In the same way that plastic recycling has become mandated, for our own good, data reduction will eventually become a legal requirement.

Like any legal requirement, the sooner you act, the lesser the effect. You can guarantee that any legislation put forth by the government will be far more severe than any preemptive action you take right now. We predict that data reduction will be as legally enforceable and widespread as health and safety legislation in the near future. 

If data storage accounts for 14% of our global carbon footprint by 2040, how can it not?

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