A microchip
Credit: Miguel Á. Padriñán

A new article published in Big Data & Society surveys ICT footprinting models and suggests subsea cables as potential strategy for lowering the environmental costs of data flows

Authors: Anne Pasek, Hunter Vaughan, & Nicole Starosielski

The environmental consequences of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is a topic of growing public and industry concern. Attempts to quantify its carbon footprint have produced contradictory results.

Some studies argue that ICT’s global carbon footprint is set to rise dramatically in the coming years, requiring urgent regulation and sectoral degrowth. Others argue that ICT growth is largely decoupled from its carbon emissions, and so provides valuable climate solutions and a sustainable model that other industries should follow.

Meanwhile, sustainability strategies have followed the tunnel vision of most major industries: e-tweaks to corporate practice and basic measures such as recycling and LED lighting.

We suggest that rethinking the approach footprinting the ICT sector might also lead to new avenues for how global data flows might be orchestrated for mitigated environmental costs.

In “The world wide web of carbon: Toward a relational footprinting of information and communications technology’s climate impacts,” recently published in Big Data & Society, we assess these debates, asking why tension has been so hard to reconcile between negative and positive visions of ICT’s environmental future. We argue that this dispute is both methodological and political, with contentions around data gaps and (de)growth commitments acting as enduring obstacles at the global scale. In some cases, the data that we need to answer this question aren’t available, leaving researchers with only models and conjectures. In other instances, different approaches to modelling can produce wildly contradictory results.

Given that factors such as data gaps and unreliable modelling are likely to continue, we are ultimately quite pessimistic about our shared ability to reach consensus on exactly how big the carbon footprint of the global sector might be. As climate solutions are nonetheless urgent and tech’s growth appears to have no brake pedal, we suggest, it may be time to ask slightly different questions.

One promising alternative would be to think about what we can know with certainty; typically, this data is partial, local, and disaggregated. However, if we take this information and put it to comparative use, we can still make good choices about how to mitigate the environmental impacts of the sector.

We call this approach relational footprinting. Relational footprinting is the study of relationships and differences—geographic, technical, and social—between specific nodes. This approach urges us to consider the relative impacts of different parts of our networks, in different parts of the world, without necessarily needing to know the universal picture.

Take, for instance, subsea telecommunication cables. We know that cable systems use very little electricity to transport data around the world compared to the data centres they connect to, just as we know that some places in the world have much cleaner electrical grids than others. This opens the window to an unexplored potential climate strategy: more cables could be used to place future data centres in low-carbon regions. In other words, where our digital systems are located may be as important as how big or how small we think that they are or should be.

This approach does not avoid the political conflicts raised by degrowth vs. decoupling debates, but seeks to situate them in more contingent and productively delimited scales. Different communities will have different needs and commitments that will be impacted by the growth or retreat of data infrastructures. Instead of presuming that there is a clear ethical answer to what the ICT sector should do everywhere, we argue that local debates and histories are much more promising places to begin.

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