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Opinion: Why we need a Carbon Footprint for the Digital Economy.

The following piece is a personal opinion of Max Schulze, Chairman of the SDIA. It does therefore not necessarily reflect the scope or direction of the SDIAs' positions.

I have spent my life building digital products, tech startups and actively promoting digitalization. I think that software eating the world is a good thing. Now that the Climate Crisis is everywhere and every industry is starting to take action - I wonder what the Digital Economy is going to do. And no I do not mean building software to fight it - rather looking at the Carbon Footprint of Software itself.

The digital economy is growing, the amount of data we create, process and consume is increasing in unimaginable ways. Startups are turning data, processes and entire industries into digital platforms, creating new value - creating a new economy. That’s an amazing development. And on the surface it creates economic growth without consuming natural resources. But does it really?

What about the infrastructure that powers the digital economy? What about the data centers, the billions of servers, equipment that needs to be manufactured and powered by electricity to run this new economy? What is the footprint of all this?

Nobody knows. And it seems no one is asking the question. It takes the fun out of YouTube or Instagram when you realize how much storage and processing power is needed to run those services or watching that Netflix movie at 4K - which consumed 100 GB of traffic. The Big Tech companies are today building some of the largest data center facilities in the world. Every week a new data center is going live somewhere in the world.

What the power plants did for the industrial revolution, data centers do for the digital economy - they are the enablers of growth. The first generation of large-scale industrial power plants - coal-fired - created part of the climate crisis we are in today. Can we afford to repeat the same iterative development for the power plants of the digital economy - the data centers?

For energy and most industries we have a clear picture of what the environmental impact is - but what about the Digital Services we consume every day? We know the emissions of every flight we take, but what about each picture we upload or each email we send?

If we knew our digital footprint - we might not watch less Netflix or use less Digital Services; in the same way our behaviours haven’t changed despite knowing the environmental impact of flying. But we can be aware of our impact and take action on reducing it through more sustainable infrastructure, e.g. by choosing an “environmental-friendly” digital service provider, same as we chose sustainable soap, biodegradable trash bags, carbon offsetting for flights, or electric cars.

It is time we know the Carbon Footprint and Environmental Impact of the Digital Economy, so we can ensure it has both a positive impact on our economic development as well as our environment.

I am glad that we decided to create the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance a year ago to pursue this goal. And I am happy some of our friends and partners have joined our cause to support it.

We will define the Carbon Footprint of the Digital Economy. And then we will plot the path towards zero carbon. It’s an exciting journey and in these challenging times I could not imagine a better way to contribute to the fight of the Climate Crisis.

Reach out to me if you want to be part of this journey.

Max Schulze
Max Schulze
Founder of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance. Expert on Software Architecture, Technology & Cloud Infrastructure.

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