Data Centers’ Impact on Climate Change May Be Overblown, New Study Suggests
Researchers argue that new technology and greater efficiency could offset energy demands
The climate impact of the data centers that host the internet might be overstated, a new paper argues.
For those who spend much of their lives online and care about the future of life on Earth, one of the most alarming realities of the digital age is the climate impact of data centers, giant computing factories that host the web and serve as clearinghouses for internet traffic. Some experts have projected that the energy needs of data centers, which already account for about 1% of global electricity production, will skyrocket in the coming years, thanks to our insatiable appetite for online videos, cloud storage, music streaming, and more.
But other scientists think the narrative of heat death by server farm is overblown, and they’re pushing back in a new perspective paper published in Science. These researchers say that dramatic improvements in the efficiency of data centers have kept their power demands in check over the past decade and that there’s room for more efficiency gains in the future. Some question this conclusion, claiming that the data behind it is spotty and that gains in efficiency won’t match the rise of energy-hungry sectors such as cryptocurrency and online gaming.
What’s not in dispute is that data centers are energy-hungry beasts — a large facility can require as much power as a small city — and demand for their services is rising exponentially. It’s logical to assume that increased use of data centers will cause their power needs to grow in tandem. Indeed, several analyses have found that data center energy consumption is rising fast, doubling over the past decade, with the potential to more than triple in the 2020s.
The authors of the new paper believe studies that use data center demand to project power consumption have a fundamental flaw: They don’t fully account for improvements in energy efficiency. These include better data center cooling technologies, improvements in computer processor efficiency, and a shift from local servers toward cloud-based service providers operating so-called hyperscale data centers.