Centre for Internet & Society

The Government's data centre policy must be more reflective of energy requirements and sustainable practices to effectively ensure that India's growing digital user base doesn't hurt the environment.


Ask people to name the first things they think of when you say climate change and you can expect a few standard answers. Polar bears on shrinking ice caps, cities suffocated from car exhaust fumes and mass deforestation are all surely to be somewhere on the list of responses. What you probably won’t find, however, is people discussing their social media. Or their email. Or any piece of the immeasurable amount of data that we produce on the internet on a daily basis. Yet all of this data is far from green, and is substantially increasing our carbon footprint. So the question arises, how is our data contributing to climate change, and what can policy makers do about it? 

There is a tendency to focus on the turnover of hardware when discussing the climate impact of digital technology. And while this is an important element of the sector’s impact, it is essential that policymakers also recognise the impact of intangible elements of the digital ecosystem - such as data. Every piece of data that is created or transmitted across the internet has an environmental cost. That cost being the energy required (and by extension the fossil fuel amount used) to operate the technology that hosts and transports the data. 

Admittedly, the environmental impact and cost of one person checking their instagram or even reading this article is quite low. But aggregated across the estimated number of internet users in the world, digital technologies are estimated to be responsible for 1.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases - which is about 4% of the global greenhouse gas production and roughly how much is produced by the global airline industry.

Another key element of data’s environmental impact is the establishment and operation of data centres. Data centres are establishments that house computing and ICT equipment. These centres are critical infrastructure components to the functioning of the internet and are used to store an immense volume of data. As the number of data centres has exploded over the last decade, they have come to account for 1% all global greenhouse gas production on their own, and are expected to contribute to 14% of all emissions by 2040.

India’s growing data centre problem 

As the number of Internet users in India grows at an exponential rate, it is imperative that the government take a proactive approach to creating sustainable infrastructure that can meet the ICT demands of the population. 

Recently, the Ministry of Electronics and Information technology, released its draft policy on data centres. The policy outlined the government’s aim at establishing a large number of domestic data centres that will be used to store all data created within the country. The government’s policy envisions India as being one of the world leaders in data centre establishment and operation - on a par with countries such as Singapore who now hold that mantle

However, despite presenting this grand vision, the policy provides no specifics on how it plans to cope with the environmental stress that these new centres would bring. The policy states that ensuring uninterrupted power to these centres will be a key priority of the government - a burden that would be far beyond the capacity of current renewable energy sources in the country. Taking the example of Singapore, almost 7% of all electricity consumption in the country was from data centres. Such proportionate consumption by Indian data centres would realistically only be possible through an expanded use of fossil fuel generated electricity. 

To give the policy some credit, it does mention ‘encouraging’ the use of renewable energy for data centres but fails to mention any specific schemes or measures to ensure renewable energy investment and growth is enough to keep up with growing data centre energy demands. 

What can policy makers do? 

The question arises, how can policy makers make data centres more sustainable? Is there any way of reducing the energy consumption of these data centres? 

In short, not really right now. It has been estimated that 40% of total energy consumption by data centres is used in cooling. And while there is the possibility that building these data centres in cooler environments would reduce these costs - converting shimla, coorg, ooty and other cool weathered hill stations into monuments of data centre infrastructure does not seem particularly practical. And so short of investing heavily into research and development for the future and conforming to global standards of data centre operation, there is not much the government can do now outside of focusing on the source of the energy that is used by these centres. 

Keeping this in mind, the first step in evolving India’s data infrastructure has to be investing in and developing clear schemes for promoting renewable energy in the country. While India has seen positive growth in renewable energy infrastructure, it would require substantial private and public investment in order to meet its target of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2021. Widespread development of data centres would only further stress India’s energy needs and would therefore require a commensurate increase in the amount of renewable energy available. As such it is imperative that the state not stick to vague statements of ‘encouraging renewable energy’ or ‘collaborating between ministries’ and rather adopt a revised policy for developing renewable energy for digital infrastructure. 

 Such a step would ensure the sustainability of the country’s digital infrastructure, and ensure that every Indian has access to both clean air and their email. 

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