An average person creates 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the data they generate through photos and videos, texts and emails each year – equivalent to flying from London to New York 26 times, according to scientists.
Across the UK population, photos taken on smartphones alone create 805,083 tonnes of C02 a year, which has a similar carbon footprint to flying from London to New York 934,109 times, researchers said.
This data is collected by companies and stored at various data centres around the globe in the form of bytes – which uses strings of ones and zeros to process and store information.
Experts believe that data centres are now responsible for 2.5-3.7% of all human-induced CO2 emissions – more than the aviation industry at 2.1%.
They said this “hidden” source of carbon footprint has not been taken into account in any of the decarbonisation policies worldwide.
The figures come from a tool developed by academics at Loughborough University known as the CO2 Data Calculator – which was built to calculate the carbon footprint of digital data.
With the amount of digital data believed to be doubling every two years, the scientists have now created another tool – developed from their CO2 Data Calculator – known as the Data Carbon Ladder, which allows businesses to measure the CO2 output of their data.
Professor Ian Hodgkinson, of Loughborough Business School, said: “In the push towards net zero, digital technologies have played, and continue to play, a critical role, but we must also be cognisant of the hidden data CO2 cost attached to the way society and organisations use digital technologies.”
The researchers calculated that a typical data-driven business employing 100 full-time employees will generate approximately 2,203 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually – equivalent to flying from London to New York 2,600 times.
It is estimated that by 2025, there will be an estimated 180 zettabytes of stored data – the equivalent of 6.8 billion years of continuous Netflix streaming.
Professor Tom Jackson, also of Loughborough Business School, added: “We are excited to announce the launch of the world’s first publicly available tool empowering organisations to assess the environmental impact of their data projects.
“With this tool, organisations can determine the carbon footprint of their data-related activities and explore better data approaches to reduce their data carbon footprint while driving down carbon emissions.”
It comes as recent Vodafone figures revealed Glastonbury festival-goers used data equivalent to downloading the Rocket Man film in HD 400 times an hour for the entire five-day event.
The company said 169 terabytes of data were consumed during the festival and 450 gigabytes of data were uploaded during Sir Elton John’s headline performance.
Professor Jackson said: “During Glasto, the mobile phone network had a staggering influx of 450GB worth of media uploads during Elton John’s performance.
“However, this is merely the tip of the iceberg, as these captivating visuals and moments are instantly shared across various social media platforms, amplifying their impact on a global scale.
“An astounding illustration of this phenomenon is the profound reach of an average post by Cristiano Ronaldo on Instagram, which exerts an energy equivalent to powering 10 homes for an entire year.”
More information on the Data Carbon Ladder can be found here: https://digitaldecarb.org/data-carbon-ladder/