Big data or low carbon?

Can you deliver more IT with less climate impact?

How can IT executives balance the demands of their businesses while also adhering to their organizations’ sustainability goals? Here are three key strategies to consider.

April 22, 2019

A blog post by Richard Pone, Cloud and Infrastructure Advisor, Deloitte MCS Limited

In October 2018, a landmark international report warned of a global climate crisis as early as 2040 if drastic measures are not taken to transform the world’s economy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions1. While much of the commentary surrounding this report focused on the political complexities of curbing fossil fuel consumption, one area of our economy is ripe for innovation—the Information Technology sector.

Currently, IT infrastructure is a material contributor to global carbon emissions, with data centers around the world consuming an estimated two to three percent of global electricity5,6 and contributing about two percent of total human carbon output4,5,6. That’s roughly the equivalent of the airline industry5,17—and with the number of connected devices expected to double from 2017 to 20202, that number will only increase.

So how can IT executives balance the demands of their businesses while also adhering to their organizations’ sustainability goals? Here are three key strategies to consider:

  1. Managing vendor performance: Third party supply chain emissions are the largest carbon contributor in the IT sector9. Organizations should understand whether the vendors in their supply chains meet accepted efficiency standards or can quantify their own greenhouse Gas emissions. Many leading firms publicly commit to carbon and energy targets and report their emissions and usage of offsetting renewable energy credits to organizations like CDP Worldwide (the Carbon Disclosure Project).
  2. Optimizing the use of your hardware: With historical active server utilization rates averaging only 10 to 18 percent8,10, there is an opportunity to avoid the need for net new servers by driving up utilization rates and the intensity of sharing, as well as using these servers for longer periods of time. Organizations can also repair or refurbish equipment from the secondary market and, with a more efficient physical hardware inventory, consider consolidating locations.
  3. Ensuring data centers are energy efficient: Managing heat is of paramount concern across data centers, and realizing efficiency primarily involves using less air conditioning. Strategies such as improving air flow management, increasing the overall temperature inside the data center, and using filtered outside air (free-air cooling) or evaporative cooling techniques can help decrease energy consumption. Organizations should also look to renewable sources like wind and solar, as well as the use of fuel cells, to mitigate energy use.

IT’s biggest players have already employed several of the techniques outlined here, including many of the major public cloud providers. In fact, cloud computing has been found to be nearly 80 percent more energy efficient than traditional data centers15,16, due to its sheer scale and efficiency. If you add in the use of renewable energy sources and credits, that number approaches 90 percent15,16—a truly staggering statistic that underscores the value of moving operations to the cloud and avoiding new data center builds.

While strategies to combat climate change are debated amongst politicians across the globe, the IT sector can continue to improve its energy consumption, making strides toward achieving a greener future.


1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change SR15 Summary for Policymakers, 6 Oct 2018
2 “Gartner Says 8.4 Billion Connected “Things” will be in use in 2017, Up 31 percent from 2016”, Gartner, February 7, 2017
3 Cisco Global Cloud Index
4 “Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast”, Anders S.G. Andrae, Nordic Digital Business Summit, October 5, 2017
5 “Global Warming: Data centres to consume three times as much energy in next decade, experts warn”, Independent, 23 January 2016
6 “Why Energy is a Big and Rapidly Growing Problem for Data Centers”, Radoslav Danilak, Forbes Technology Council, Dec 15, 2017
7 “Even as renewables increase, fossil fuels continue to dominate U.S. energy mix” U.S. Energy Information Administration, 3 July 2017
8 United States Data Center Energy Usage Report, June 2016, Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
9 ICT Sector’s Role in Climate Change Mitigation – September 2014, CDP Worldwide
10 Data Center Efficiency Assessment, August 2014, Natural Resources Defense Council.
11 CDP Worldwide data
12 Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard, The greenhouse Gas Protocol
13 Google Environmental Report 2018
14 HPE Living Progress Data Summary 2017
15 The carbon benefits of cloud computing – A study on the Microsoft Cloud – 2018
16 “The Carbon Emissions of Server Computing for Small to Medium Sized Organizations”, WSP Environment & Energy LLC, Natural Resources Defense Council, 2012
17 “Climate Change & CORSIA Fact Sheet”, May 2018, IATA
18 Intel Climate Change Policy Statement: Updated December 2017
19 Intel Annual Report Final 2017
20 Amazon Annual Report 2017


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