Climate

Big Tech's Dirty Secret.

May 20, 2021
4 min

While you may not think of tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook as highly polluting companies, there is a dirty side to the tech industry.


But, first let's understand how.

‘The Cloud’ does not actually exist, instead, there are over 7.2 million data centres across the globe storing data. These data centres are particularly electricity-intensive, accounting for 3% of the global electricity supply and due to the coal used for electricity generation, these centres are responsible for 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

'There is a dirty side to the tech industry'

Worse still, these centres are highly inefficient. Only 6-12% of this electricity is actually used by the servers at any one time, the rest is essentially kept in reserves in case of a surge of activity. So instead, 98% of the electricity harnessed by data centres is lost as heat energy to the environment. While some data centres such as those in Stockholm have tried to tackle this waste by using it to heat homes around the city, the majority of data centres fail to harness this heat energy in what is a very wasteful process.

Data centres are also huge polluters, commonly violating air quality regulations across the globe. Over a 3 year period, Amazon violated air pollution regulations 24 times in Northern Virginia alone, for running generators without essential environmental permits. In one instance the fine exceeded $500,000.

But what about all of the companies pledging to be more green?

While these big tech companies may be taking steps in the right direction, this is far from enough. 

So far, only 20 internet companies have made commitments to become 100% renewable, including big names such as Google, Apple and Facebook. Since these commitments, the direct purchase of renewable energy by corporations in the US has increased dramatically. 

Although the onus for change needs to be on these companies to do more, as consumers we can take some small individual steps to minimise the impact our tech has on the environment:

- We can educate ourselves on the technology we use, thinking about how long will it last and the climate impacts

- Thinking about what we buy, do we really need to buy new? Or could we buy second hand? 

- Support companies that have committed to being more green, do your research!

- Reduce your data footprint by deleting those emails.

Sources

Glanz. (2012). The New York Times.

Pomerantz. (2012). Greenpeace.

Monroe. (2016). Data Centre Knowledge.

Biba. (2017). BBC.

Greenpeace. (2017). Clicking Clean.

Ovide. (2020). New York Times.

Statista. (2020). Data Centres.