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What is the Carbon Footprint of Data Storage?
Blog...What is the Carbon Footprint of Data Storage?

What is the Carbon Footprint of Data Storage?

Green News
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How is your favorite data storage service harming the environment?
Green News
laptop, smartphone and red apple on a white table

Photos, videos, emails, text messages – many of us use our phones so often these days, that we rely on “the cloud” to store much of our precious memories. As phones and laptops become thinner and thinner, so do their solid state storage drives – meaning more devices inherently demand their users to store their data on the cloud. 

However, all that additional electrical consumption to store heavy gigabytes of information on the cloud can’t be good for the planet – can it?

What is Data Storage?

Data Storage, often referred to as “the cloud” is a method of storing documents, videos, photos, and all other kinds of various files on an internet server rather than on a backup hard drive, flash drive, or hard drive on a phone or computer itself.

Ergo, the term “the cloud” comes from the idea that your information is stored “in the air” or in an intangible place, unlike a hard drive or flash drive where the information can literally be held in your hands.

Data Storage has grown in popularity over the last decade, especially with the use of smartphones and interconnected devices: such as Apple devices like the iPhone, iMac, and Apple Watch. Many people use services for data storage such as iCloud by Apple to sync contacts, calendars, photos, word documents, and videos between devices. Other popular data storage services include Google Drive and Dropbox. 

How does data storage work?

While we often refer to data storage as being “on the cloud” but it’s actually not the case – when you decide to save a file using data storage, your information is then stored in massive buildings filled with hard drives. These hard drives have to be running at all times, in the event you want to retrieve the files you’ve saved via data storage. This is precisely why data storage uses extensive electricity, and why data storage creates such a large carbon footprint

Blue keyboard

The hard drive on your computer only requires a fraction of a kilowatt to save your information, whereas the electricity required to save something to the cloud would take up more energy. For instance, 1 gigabyte of to the cloud uses around seven kilowatts per hour. If someone stores ten terabyte of information on the cloud using data storage, according to electricity rates in the U.S., that means they are creating a carbon footprint equivalent to 500 kgCO2e. Imagine the carbon footprint of someone who has to store and send large files, such as a photographer or a video editor. Maybe some aren’t commuting to work anymore, but they are creating a large enough carbon footprint just by storing data on the cloud as if they were still driving to work. 

Precisely what happens when someone decides to save something on data storage like iCloud or Google Drive, is once you upload the particular file you wish to save, it is stored at a data center – somewhere in the world, and not necessarily geographically close to you. The reason why data storage creates such a large carbon footprint is because data centers use copious amounts of energy to keep their servers running: for switches, lights, HVAC and other special equipment and emergency power banks. Retrieving your data from the cloud may seem like a simple task on the outside, but in reality – exorbitant amounts of energy are used incessantly to ensure a user’s 24/7 access to their data. 

When you pay for a subscription to use data storage, you are basically paying “rent” on your allotted amount of space in the data storage center. That’s why the pricing for amounts of data differ. Just like an apartment – if the apartment you rent is smaller than in turn – you pay less. If you decide to move to a bigger apartment, the price of rent goes up. The logic works the same way with data storage. 

What are the advantages of data storage?

The most overarching benefit to data storage is the convenience of it. If I film a video on my iPhone, I can go home and it shows up on my iMac and my Macbook Pro. If I am in the middle of writing my book on a word document on my laptop, I can get up and walk to my desktop and pick up exactly where I left off. 

Data storage doesn’t require lugging around an external hard drive. If something is to happen to one of your devices and the device can’t be repaired, all of your information is readily available to be downloaded again onto the new device. In addition to this, data storage makes it easy to share files with co-workers around the world – something that has become increasingly useful as many businesses have shifted to full-time remote work following the pandemic.

Laptop on a table next to house plant and picture frame

Data storage has provided a convenient way for co-workers to grant access to read, edit, or share files amongst the company or potential business partners. Data storage offers the opportunity for your co-workers to be able to easily collaborate and work together from afar. 

In short, data storage is a simple, mindless way of ensuring that all of your important files are accessible regardless of the state of your device. It is a seamlessly integrated method of storing files so that you don’t have to think twice about backing up your devices, which many of us are guilty of forgetting to do. 

Is data storage bad for the environment?

Data storage is climbing the ladder of sectors responsible for the largest carbon footprints. In fact, data storage now accounts for more carbon emissions than the commercial airline industry – and a single data center uses the same amount of electricity that can power up to 50,000 homes. Keep in mind, there are over 8,000 data centers all around the world, and as the need and desire for data storage continues to grow – so do the amount of data centers, eating up electricity, across the globe. 

As of today, data storage centers are responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions when you include all devices that make use of data storage.  However, besides the evident and enormous carbon footprint created by the use of data storage – there are a few other caveats to be considered. 

Data storage centers need to stay clean to run properly, as dust getting into the machines could prove problematic. Many of the cleaners used in data storage centers are toxic, and in turn aren’t good for the environment. Worst of all, the electronic waste from old batteries equipment just adds to our already-overflowing landfills. 

What are the downsides of data storage?

The greatest concern when it comes to users who decide to store their data using data storage is the lack of privacy. When you opt to store your information on your laptop’s hard drive, external hard drive, or flash drive – it’s relatively next to impossible for a hacker to gain access to your information. However, when your personal photos or sensitive information is stored “on the cloud” – there’s always a chance of someone being able to gain access to your information. 

Golden padlock locking the door

This is the precise reason why some don’t condone my use of the iCloud keychain or Apple Pay. While it is convenient for me to not remember multiple passwords or to be able to pay for my groceries without even pulling out my wallet – the risk is there, and those who partake in the use of anything that makes use of data storage must recognize the potential consequences. 

In the event of a server crash, it’s possible that one could lose all of their data or temporarily lose access to it – whereas with a solid state drive or external hard drive, that would never be the case. Data storage can also be costly. For instance, my two terabytes of iCloud storage runs me $9.99 a month – a total of $120 a year. It may not seem like a lot, but it’s definitely an expense I wish I didn’t have. Lastly, data storage requires constant internet access – so if you’re on a train or somewhere without WiFi, then you won’t be able to access your files unless you’ve copied them onto an external hard drive or connected to the internet. 

The environmental impact of data storage is evident and hard to ignore, but its convenience is what keeps people subscribed to data storage services. Is there a way to get the best of both worlds in terms of external storage without subscribing to the notion of excessive carbon emissions that data storage does?

What are sustainable alternatives to using data storage?

The most sustainable and viable alternative to using data storage is to opt to store your excess files on an external hard drive.

External hard drives still require power to function, but they require a significantly less amount of energy to write your files and store them onto the disk in comparison to data storage. They are more cost-effective per gigabyte of storage you pay for in comparison to data storage subscriptions, faster as they do not require an internet connection, and are easy to use. 

However, there are many downsides to external hard drives as well that data storage usually solves. For instance, if you lose your external hard drive – all of your data is gone and permanently irretrievable. It isn’t mindless in the way that data storage is; it requires effort and time on your behalf to copy and move files. External hard drives can be moody, and fail to properly mount onto your disk or eject themselves in the middle of working on an important project. They can overheat, and have to be taken with you anytime you want to access your files – both of which aren’t a problem with data storage. 

The other more sustainable alternative to data storage, is to purchase a device with more storage to begin with. Many people opt for the least amount of storage when they buy a new phone or laptop because they don’t believe they will go through it all, or decide to rely on data storage for what their devices can’t handle. However, if more people took the plunge and bought a device with more storage capability – then the demand for data storage would decrease, and everyone would indirectly be reducing their carbon footprint

External hard disk

I myself use an external hard drive for video projects, and I can’t lie – it’s often infuriating at times. Every time you finish an external hard drive, you have to buy another one, thus making it difficult to properly organize all of your external files into a single place. On the other hand, I am also an avid user of Apple’s iCloud storage – as it allows for seamless viewing of photos and videos across devices.

There is a good reason why I use a combination of external storage and data storage: neither is perfect in its functionality or carbon footprint. However, if you’re looking to completely emit your personal carbon footprint from the use of data storage services – an external hard drive or purchasing a device with more storage is the way to go. 

What about Greenly?

If reading this article about the carbon footprint of data storage has made you interested in reducing your carbon emission to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

Click here to learn more about Greenly and how we can help you reduce your carbon footprint.

Take the first step towards reducing your carbon footprint by requesting a free and non-binding demo with one of our experts today and finding the solution that best fits your business needs.

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