As Professor Christoph Meinel, Director of the Potsdam-based Hasso Plattner Institute for Digital Engineering (HPI) recently acknowledged in German news magazine Der Spiegel, “Digital technologies can offer real leverage when it comes to ensuring that this increase in prosperity also succeeds in the future. They just need to prepare themselves first and make their contribution to conserving natural resources and avoiding CO2 emissions.” In this sense, it will be important to greatly intensify research efforts to make digital technologies more energy-efficient and climate-friendly. At that point, using ‘clean IT’ to keep the global electricity consumption of IT and internet applications under control will not only be possible – it will also be necessary. The HPI even puts a figure on it: “Deploying clean IT could reduce energy consumption by a factor of 20.”
Today, fossil fuels are still being used to meet the world’s hunger for energy in business and society, and this is seen as the leading driver of rising CO2 emissions. As Professor Meinel observes, “This is contrasted by the virtual world of digitization. It promises to use big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver answers to the questions of our time – and the climate problem is one of the biggest of those.” Digital technologies are offering concrete solutions in almost every industry; in Germany alone, examples include smart grids that will provide the foundation for a successful energy transformation, smart mobility services which could potentially save up to 12 million metric tons in CO2 emissions, and smart farming techniques that could lower the use of pesticides by up to 80 percent.
The path to get there – specifically by using less energy-hungry hardware and software – takes us to the global landscape of the data centers. As Dr. Ralph Hintemann, Senior Researcher at the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability notes, the demand for electrical energy from servers and data centers in Germany rose by 6 percent in 2019, reaching 14 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in what he describes as “the field of tension between efficiency and digital sovereignty.” The amount of energy consumed by data centers is twelve times lower today than ten years ago, but high demand for processing power has swallowed up these efficiency gains. The energy needed to send enormous volumes of data across global networks is immense, but generating it is releasing more CO2 across all continents than the sum total of all pre-COVID-19 air traffic worldwide.