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The hidden climate impact of the Internet of Things

October 15, 2019

By Scott Witchalls

It has been predicted that over 50 billion transmitting devices will be in circulation by 2020

Anything from smart kettles and fridges to cars and door bells will send data through our communication networks which could end up housed in storage somewhere.

A good majority of this accumulated data will ultimately end up as “data waste.” Whilst a lot of this data can be deleted, the resources that have created it will have been wasted.

Data Waste: 21st Century Emissions

The connected devices originating the data, the communication system directing the data, the computers processing the data and the data centres containing the data all use energy. The sum of the energy needed to run this whole data ecosystem is already causing a noticeable dent on existing power infrastructure across the globe. If ultimately, a substantial proportion of the data has no value, this energy consumption and its impact on power infrastructure is being wasted.

Although some global ITC and data companies such as Google have recently announced that a great percentage of their energy use is to be sourced from renewables, this does not account for the external data movement and processing cooling need.

The entire data economy needs cooling from the computers processing data, to the power infrastructure driving it, to the data centres housing it.

This artificial cooling process is currently reliant on chemicals such as sulphur hexafluoride and hydroflurocarbons which are over 23,500 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Unmanaged, these chemicals have serious implications for climate change.

Basically, your Bluetooth Toothbrush is damaging the planet.

These issues are missing from discussions about the internet of things and the Smart City agenda because the scale of the problem has not been identified.

One bite (pun intended) of data from a smart toothbrush via Bluetooth is not itself going to break the emissions bank, but what about 50 billion devices transmitting data daily?

When dealing with climate change, context is everything. As we get closer to the roll out of 5G there is going to be an exponential shift in data creation that we currently have no real concept of.

Before this tech shift happens, the IT sector needs to put the impact of data creation into context in relation to climate change. This won’t be too dissimilar to lessons learnt in physical waste management.

Learning lessons from plastic waste: data waste hierarchy

  1. Don’t create waste data. Those in charge of data creation, whether through technology applications or project design should seek to design out unnecessary data creation where possible. Data lifecycle assessments would be an easy way of deciding what good data looks like.
  2. Data recycling—end single-use data. End single-use data by ensuring common formats and sharing of data, thereby designing opportunities for the broader end use of data.
  3. Label data’s impact on global warming. Communication of the potential to impact global warming drives better understanding. Very simply, label the lifetime global warming potential of the Internet of Things, all connected devices and any smart city projects.

This will kick start the urgently needed conversation around the data we need and the data that will be wasted.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Scott Witchalls

    Working on projects in both the UK and overseas, Scott develops and delivers transportation plans for major sustainable and regeneration programs.

    Contact Scott
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