How can digital technologies contribute to a sustainable planet?
6 minutes read
20th July 2020
Dr. Federico M. Facca
Chief Technology Officer & Head of Martel Lab
Federico is Martel’s Swiss Army knife for IoT and Cloud solutions. He leads R&D activities and supports customers to develop their solutions leveraging Martel’s innovation footprint. In his free time, he is addicted to taking pictures of his small kids travelling around the globe, mostly on public transport.
How can digital technologies contribute to a sustainable planet?
As a father of two small children I’m keenly aware of the importance of sustainability for our planet. As an ICT expert I think there are two main ways to look at digital technologies’ role toward a sustainable planet: firstly to understand if ICT is sustainable and how improvements can be made, dealt with in this post; and secondly, to consider how to apply ICT to improve the overall sustainability of other activities, from manufacturing to agriculture, which we will come to in the next blog post.
At Martel, we believe in making a difference by making environmental responsible choices across our activities, such as: adopting sustainable behaviours at work, avoiding printing documents as far as possible, choosing recycled paper for our dissemination materials and organizing sustainable events. Moreover, we recently migrated Martel’s websites and the websites we manage on behalf of EC funded projects to an enviromentally responsible hosting platform, that is fast, secure and eco-friendly. We’re dedicated to the cause of green tech to the extent that we have launched the ‘Digital For Planet’ Initiative. As ICT innovation champions with partners all over Europe we believe that only by acting together can we share the knowledge and information needed for effective human-centered policies, technologies and actions for a more sustainable planet.
ICT and sustainability
There is a huge pressure on ICT to demonstrate sustainability because its adoption is constantly growing along with its carbon footprint. There are an estimated 18 million servers deployed in data centers globally, up from around 11 million in 2006. Data centers consume roughly 1 percent of global energy production. While we witnessed an enormous growth in the energy consumption of data centers, growing 6 percent from 2010 to 2018, from 2018 to 2020 there was almost no growth, but analysts predict a growth of 3 percent by 2025.
The glass is half full: ICT energy efficiency is constantly increasing, despite the increase in global consumption.
At Martel, we work hand-in-hand with international partners to develop Cloud Computing and Internet of Things solutions for the benefit of our societies, therefore we always evaluate the impact of these technologies on energy consumption and strive to apply the most environmentally responsible solutions. Particularly as other industries consume so much, we’ll not meet our SDG/Paris Agreement targets on CO2 emission reduction if ICT were to contribute further to CO2 emissions.
If the world is using more and more data, then it must be using more and more energy, right? Not so, concluded a recent study published in Science Magazine. The study’s authors note that the ICT energy efficiency gains outpaced anything seen in other major sectors of the economy. As a result, while data centers now power more applications for more people than ever before, they still account for about 1 percent of global electricity consumption – the same proportion as in 2010.
The CPU capacity of computation per kilowatt-hour from the 1970s to today is vastly superior. The energy required to perform a task decreased by a factor of 100 every decade.
Data center operators’ going-green incentive
I regard the source of energy used to fuel the data center equally as important as the industry sector share of consumption.
The key question is, who owns the data center? In general, the operator is bound to be concerned about energy efficiency because they pay the bill. Cost-cutting is a great incentive to design low energy consumption servers, and also energy-related appliances that reduce energy consumption.
Another key question, where is the data center located? Operators are housing them in abandoned mines, the difference of temperature between the above ground and underground, acts as a cooling mechanism, which again reduces energy consumption.
Perhaps one of the biggest commercial incentives for a data center operator not only to reduce energy consumption, but to ensure they are using renewable or green energy, is that most of the big tech players have an interest in pitching a ‘green data center’ to show their commitment toward a better planet. Most big players not only invest in solutions to reduce energy consumption, they are also investing to ensure the data centers’ energy source is green. Google is taking this seriously, all their data centers are run on sustainable energy sources. This issue is important at a time when the European Union is looking to impose energy efficiency regulations on EU data center operators.
At Martel, we believe in making a difference by using an environmentally responsible and secure website hosting platform for our own website and for the websites we create and curate for EC-funded projects.
The proliferation of digital services – like websites and social media – are contributing to the increase in energy demand, but ironically, public opinion leverages that increase in demand to support the fight for a greener world. Consumers are calling for more corporate social responsibility. In my mind, this goes beyond a call for corporations to be accountable and boils down to a personal responsibility to improve on the ‘digital hygiene’ of personal data security and take actions to reduce your digital footprint. For example, deleting files on the cloud, particularly heavy ones such as videos, is something I do myself and would encourage others to do too. However, public opinion is more focussed on what companies should do than on individual action.
Tech companies won’t be the ones to push for people to curate their data in a responsible way. And it’s hard to imagine civil society promoting sustainable behaviors in the usage of ICT as it’s not a tangible issue related to the environment like recycled plastic or cycling to work. Maybe political bodies should incentivise and support the reduction of our digital footprint, just like they support the reduction of the carbon footprint.
 Koronen, C., Åhman, M. & Nilsson, L.J. Data centres in future European energy systems—energy efficiency, integration and policy. Energy Efficiency 13, 129–144 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12053-019-09833-8
 Recalibrating global data center energy-use estimates, Eric Masanet, Arman Shehabi, Nuoa Lei, Sarah Smith, Jonathan Koomey, Science 28 Feb 2020: Vol. 367, Issue 6481, pp. 984-986 DOI: 10.1126/science.aba3758