Server cables
Credit: Brett Sayles for Pexels

A new article for Big Data & Society explores how to quantify the carbon footprint of information and communications technology sector.

A new article for the journal Big Data & Society has been co-authored by Minderoo Centre Senior Research Associate Hunter Vaughan alongside Anne Pasek and Nicole Starosielski.

The climate impacts of the information and communications technology sector—and Big Data especially—is a topic of growing public and industry concern, though attempts to quantify its carbon footprint have produced contradictory results.

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

This article assesses these debates, arguing that, due to data frictions and incommensurate study designs, the question is likely to remain irresolvable at the global scale.

We present six methodological factors that drive this impasse: fraught access to industry data, bottom-up vs. top-down assessments, system boundaries, geographic averaging, functional units, and energy efficiencies.

In response, we propose an alternative approach that reframes the question in spatial and situated terms: A relational footprinting that demarcates particular relationships between elements—geographic, technical, and social—within broader information and communications technology infrastructures.

Illustrating this model with one of the global Internet’s most overlooked components—subsea telecommunication cables—we propose that information and communications technology futures would be best charted not only in terms of quantified total energy use, but in specifying the geographical and technical parts of the network that are the least carbon-intensive, and which can therefore provide opportunities for both carbon reductions and a renewed infrastructural politics.

In parallel to the politics of (de)growth, we must also consider different network forms.

Read the authors blog on the topic


Anne Pasek

Hunter Vaughan

Nicole Starosielski

About Big Data & Society

Big Data & Society (BD&S) is an Open Access peer-reviewed scholarly journal that publishes interdisciplinary work principally in the social sciences, humanities and computing and their intersections with the arts and natural sciences about the implications of Big Data for societies.