Data generation and storage have become indispensable in the operations of businesses, organizations, and individuals. However, a significant portion of this data remains unused and forgotten, resulting in a phenomenon known as "dark data". This article summarizes the environmental consequences of dark data and highlights the urgent need for digital decarbonization.


The Hidden Environmental Toll of Dark Data

Studies have shown that a staggering 54% of the digital data generated by organizations is collected, processed, and stored for single-use purposes, never to be accessed again. This includes everything from redundant photos stored in cloud platforms to "once-created-and-never-revisited" spreadsheets. Or data from IoT sensors that have no purpose. Or a university with hundreds of modules and thousands of student coursework assignments produced each year, that needs to be stored and may not be accessed later. Even the data that remains idle still occupies space on servers, which consume substantial amounts of electricity. These hidden energy costs contribute to organizationsÔÇÖ carbon footprint, posing significant environmental challenges.



The Drive Toward Net Zero and the Overlooked Digital Carbon Footprint

As society focuses on reducing carbon footprints across various industries such as automotive, aviation, and energy, the environmental impact of processing digital data often goes unnoticed. Astonishingly, digitization was estimated to account for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. The production of digital data continues to surge, with an anticipated generation of 97 zettabytes this year alone and a projected doubling to 181 zettabytes by 2025 (1ZB = 1,000,000,000,000 gigabytes). Yet, reducing the digital carbon footprint remains largely unaddressed in policy discussions and sustainability initiatives.

Contrary to popular belief, digital data and the process of digitization are not inherently carbon neutral and the responsibility lies with us all to manage and reduce the carbon footprint associated with digital data. Introducing the concept of "digital decarbonization" - this approach strives to mitigate the environmental impact stemming from digital data by underscoring the importance of employing sustainable digital processes. While digitization does not pose an environmental challenge, how organizations and individuals manage and interact with digital data in everyday tasks carries significant environmental consequences.



Unveiling the Magnitude: Dark Data vs. Aviation Industry

The sheer scale of dark data's environmental impact becomes apparent when comparing the carbon footprints of data centers and the aviation industry. Data centers, which account for 2.5% of all carbon dioxide emissions, surpass the carbon footprint of the aviation sector, which stands at 2.1%. This striking comparison underscores the urgency of addressing the efficiency of current digital practices and prompts organizations to consider strategies for reusing, processing, and storing digital data more effectively.┬áFor instance, a typical data-driven business with 100 employees may generate approximately 3 gigabytes of dark data every day, equivalent to the carbon footprint of six flights from London to New York if kept for a year. Extrapolating this on a global scale, companies produce a staggering 1,300,000,000 gigabytes of dark data each day ÔÇô equivalent to three million flights from London to New York!!!


Taking Action: Digital Decarbonization in Practice

To gain a better understanding of the carbon cost associated with data, organizations must calculate the carbon footprint of their data to become more aware of their environmental impact and develop strategies to reduce it.

As the world continues to digitize at an unprecedented pace, we must recognize the immense environmental consequences associated with dark data and the need for digital decarbonization. By reevaluating our digital practices, fostering data reuse, and implementing sustainable data management strategies, we can mitigate the hidden energy costs of dark data and work toward achieving net-zero emissions. From individuals deciding which photos and videos to retain to organizations redefining their data collection and storage practices, everyone has a role to play in minimizing the digital carbon footprint. Together, we can forge a more sustainable digital future.

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