OPINION: Climate conscious? Start deleting your selfies

How many times this week have you taken a photo, re-taken it, liked or shared something on social media or streamed some form of entertainment?

Do you use some kind of cloud storage? You probably do, because it's a convenient way to keep your files safe and devices running smoothly.

But if you're trying to be environmentally conscious and you're not taking your data footprint into account, you'll need to recalculate.

Cloud computing has been praised for helping to slow the proliferation of e-waste to some extent. But what you're not storing on your own devices still has to go somewhere. That "somewhere" is usually some kind of data centre – a centralised location, sometimes known as a server farm, where large amounts of data are stored.

The amount of energy consumed by data centres is on the rise. Recent estimates suggest it will treble in the next decade, from just under 3% of the world's electricity to over 8% by 2030. Currently, data centres contribute around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Two percent might not sound like much. But data centres have reached that level fast. In 2019, server farms used just over 400 terawatt hours of electricity, which is over half the annual electricity demand of the entire African continent.

Worse, according to research by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a scant 6% of the data created is actually in use. Meanwhile, IDC's Digital Universe Study from 2012 found that just 0.5% of data was actually being analysed, which means human beings have created a massive data dump that's contributing to global heating for no reason at all.

Mother truck load

In 2020, the sum of the world's data will come to about 40 zettabytes – geekspeak for a mother truck load – and it's expected to increase a whopping fivefold in the next five years. Ninety percent of all data has been generated in the last two years. 

The issue, to put it very simply, is getting out of hand very quickly.

There are some attempts to address the problem at ground level. I was in Southeast Asia recently, and noted widespread awareness campaigns pleading with the public to delete unnecessary files.

But on the flipside, a recent feature in sci-tech magazine Ozy reported that the next frontier in combating the data waste issue would be to store data in space. Scientist and entrepreneur Ohad Harlev's company, LyteLoop, has developed technology that allows for data storage in motion, and not just on earth. The ultimate plan is to store data by sending it between satellites, according to the report.

Personally, I am not so sure that's the solution. Do we really need to be storing all this data? Individually, do we really need to be taking 17 versions of every picture? (I was at a bar recently and saw a fellow customer literally not sit down to have a single drink because she spent the entire afternoon taking virtually identical selfies against an admittedly Instagrammable backdrop. I can think of a way she might have had a better afternoon and saved some data.)

As for corporates, the debate around the ethics of data collection is well documented. Perhaps this is just another layer. After tech consultant Dylan Curran downloaded all the data Facebook and Google had stored about him, it should be clear how much data is floating in the ether about the rest of us, and what for?

I'm not sure expanding to space to take up more room – when we've already noted that the overwhelming majority of the existing information is unused – is getting to the nub of the problem.

There's a bigger issue here. Humans have a waste crisis, and the struggle seems to be with changing our mindset. The fact that this extends to digital waste is no surprise.

* Marelise van der Merwe is Fin24's production editor. Views expressed are her own and not necessarily those of Fin24. 

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