Data centers: environmental impacts of data centers

12 June 2023 | digital pollution

If the sector of the web was a country, it would be the 3rd biggest consumer of global electricity. In this optic, it’s legit to ask what are data centers? What environmental impacts have data centers? If the energy consumption of servers is so important, where does it come from? Nowadays, the environmental purpose of data centers is crucial. Here’s why it is important to learn more about these subjects allowing easy exchange about daily information.  

What is a data center: definition

The data center is a physical place in which are gathered informatic installations (hard disks, central computers, servers, routers, etc).

Frédéric Bordage, an expert in digital sobriety and sustainably informatic prefer the use of the term “informatic center”. This term implies data storage but also some servers that need to do some treatments and demands.

These informatics centers are responsible to store data, but also to distribute it, in an intern way or thanks to Internet access.

Indeed, some companies have their own data centers, in which they are hosting their database, their websites. Cloud services can store the information in a or some center(s) of exclusive private data.

In a nutshell, a data center is simply a group of servers. Server is a computer performing with efficiency and a storage capacity boosted to answer the needs of users. The latter provide a service (the distribution and data gestion) in an environment controlled: that is to say that they are air-conditioned and secured so that as few incidents as possible occur.

So that work, they need to be powered and cooled 24 hours on 24, 365 days per year. This asks a huge quantity of energy.

What are data centers for?

The data center, and more precisely all data centers Ohio to OST billions of data presents on the Internet, it represents billions of giga octets. We will see it a bit later in this article, these data are a form of invisible pollution but non negligible.

Finally, they are also useful to store data that anyone or company creates and uses!

Indeed, the centers are used for and by:

  •         Companies and financial institutions (banks, the bourse, etc.);
  •         social networks, the GAFAM;
  •         Telecommunication agencies;
  •         streaming supplier and video games services (discover our article on the environmental impacts of Netflix);
  •         instantaneous messaging and emailing;
  •         etc.

In a nutshell, as soon as we used the internet to watch videos, sent an e-mail or a message etc. We are using data centers.

Moreover, in the digital age and despite its importance that become capital at an economic and social level, data centers generate some serious environmental issues in what we must answer. So, what are the environmental impacts of data centers?

Environmental impacts of data centers

Data centers don’t release visible pollution. We don’t see an oil slick going above the surface of the ocean as when an oil-tanker suffers a shipwreck, we don’t see toxicity or rivers changing by its color or its number of intoxicated fishes. Yet, these data centers release CO2, as cars, planes by examples.

This invisible pollution has devastating effects on the environment and has a serious impact on the cycle of warming and climatic deregulation. We’re going to talk about data centers by starting first of all by taking an interest in the infrastructures cooling issue, and then understand in what the construction of these centers is an environmental and social problem.

Energetic consumption of servers

Data centers are not sober in energy consumption. Indeed, according to The shift project, the digital sector represents between 4% and 8% of global emissions of CO2, double of the air traffic emissions.

We estimate 45 million servers in the world. Besides, they have doubled their electric consumption from 2000 to 2005. This suggests a phenomenal increase in 2022…

Against this exponential consumption, companies quickly thought about reducing their energy bills.

Nevertheless, there is no serious lead that is nowadays presented. Indeed, some scientists assumed that about a third of the electricity used by the server is wasted before reaching machines to switch from alternating current from the grid to direct current.

All this energy spent is difficult to represent, doesn’t it? So, to imagine things better: if the web was a country, it would be the third biggest consumer of electricity in the world.

We now understand more how and why data centers are so much energy consuming. But what are all the sectors that participate in carbon emissions, equivalent carbon or not. We can talk in a second time about servers cooling and finally, of extracted materials, that is necessary to the manufacture of machines.

Infrastructures cooling

A data center needs to answer strict norms and a precise book of charges in order to guarantee its perennity and an optimal use in every circumstance, of good performances and avoid failure.

Such systems create their own heat it needs to be cooled to avoid failures or crashes. This increases the electric consumption.

Thus, every data center has its own cooling system that keeps a constant temperature.

It is here a serious climatic issue! Limit this consumption by optimizing data centers Physiology, by opting for other cooling systems or by choosing green electricity.

By these facts, more and more data centers use air cooling systems, thus consuming less energy. Also, systems of heat recuperation are brought to the fore.

Indeed, the extracted heat of servers is often used and rejected in the environment. This constitutes a considerable energy waste.

Once again, an awareness has occurred. Since 2010, actions are brought to the fore: the university of Amsterdam in Holland has access to heat water for free thanks to the data centers of the operator Equinix. Thus, some examples see that day and show the way to reduce environmental impacts of data centers.

So, if the cooling looks like he took away sobriety, what about the necessary materials to the construction of data centers.

Impact on materials construction

This construction of data centers has an impact not only on the fauna and flora, but it also has a social impact!

Indeed, to create all our connected objects, including data centers to make that the whole web sector work, it needs rare metals. Like lithium, gold, metal, etc. Indeed, mines, in which are extracted materials, are less or not overseen by environmental and social legislation.


To access metals, it needs first to find the first part on which the mine (open or not) will be dug. The flora is leveled without taking into account its importance and the fauna that it can protect. Then, chemical substances are used to separate the elements and recovered metals that are precious.

These wastewaters full of chemical products are discharged on the ground, creating soils pollution, underground waters and neighbor rivers.

Besides, at the low rhythm in which metals are extracted, Olivier Vidal, researcher at the CNRS estimates an exhaustion of about 15 rare and essential metals by 2060. Yet, the rhythm and the demand don’t slow down.

The social impact is not less important. Several consequences are felt on populations: multiplication of respiratory and skin diseases caused by metal dust. Expulsion of populations of their town and villages, forcing them to renounce their local activities such as fishing and agriculture.

How to reduce the carbon footprint of data centers?

Environmental impacts of data centers are important:

  •         Energy consumption to stay powers day and night;
  •         energy consumption to stay cooled;
  •         last energy before getting directly to machines from an alternating current to a direct current;
  •         And you Monsieur and social impact from the instruction of rare metals;
  •         Etc.

In Greenoco, we are working on reducing data flow in order to realize energy gains at every step. Thus, we are helping our clients to reduce their carbon footprint of websites by analyzing and proposing strategies of reduction of carbon emissions, all by increasing the user experience and natural referencing.  

You want to test the carbon footprint of your website? Join us for more information and realize the first measure of your website carbon footprint.

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