The dangers of focusing only on CO2

We are facing climate, soil, air, water, chemical, fertilizer, and plastics crises. Interlinked with these are a whole range of mining waste, commercial waste, data waste and e-waste crises. We have zero hope of solving the crises we face by simply focusing on one metric such as CO2. In fact, focusing too much on CO2 will make the overall crises worse, because there are incentives to reduce CO2 by increasing the harms caused by the other crises.

For years, the data center industry relentlessly promoted their energy efficiency. It was like it was the only metric that mattered. And the media and governments bought it or were bought by it. If you tried to find out about the other harms that data centers did, it was almost impossible. One of the most secretive industries on earth, data centers preferred to exist as anonymous giant warehouses without even logos or names.

If you wanted to find out about water use or the production of e-waste, it was almost impossible. Google went so far as to label its water use a “trade secret”, meaning that the local community had no rights to know how much water was being used. It was only after a prolonged court case, taken by a small independent newspaper called The Oregonian/Oregon Live, that Google was forced grudgingly to disclose its water use. Let me stress that the global right to know how much water data centers use was not won a New York Times or Washington Post or other Big Media, who far too often are in bed with Big Tech.

Why would data centers go to such extreme lengths to hide their water usage? “The reason there’s not a lot of transparency, simply put, I think most companies don’t have a good story here,” Kyle Myers, a vice president at CyrusOne, a data center company, stated. Myers explained that there was a trade-off at work. One of the best ways to reduce energy usage and costs was to switch from electrical air conditioning to water-based cooling. “Water is super cheap,” Myers explained. “And so people make the financial decision that it makes sense to consume water.”

Another way of reducing energy usage and costs was to use the very latest in servers. Whenever a new server design would come out, even if it had a tiny efficiency gain, then data centers would buy it and replace their ‘old’ servers. Their old servers might only be a couple of years old. These ‘old’ servers would have caused huge environmental harm to manufacture. It didn’t matter. Nobody cared about e-waste. All the media and governments cared about was reducing CO2. Even though, ironically, a server causes 1-2 tons of CO2 to manufacture, hey, that CO2 was caused in some poor country in the Global South. So, in the Global North we came up with another ridiculous term called dematerialization. Our CO2 figures and material usage were looking better, as our innovative companies found more and better ways to hide the harm they do, and to bring the greenwashing art to a higher level.

Everything is interconnected. We need a genuine system of environmental accounting. We must at last calculate the true and total cost of what we do to the environment.

Data centers, backbone of the digital economy, face water scarcity and climate risk, Michael Copley, NPR, 2022

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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