The Digital Dilemma: Balancing data growth with the carbon costs

In today’s digital age, the vast amounts of data generated by businesses often go unnoticed. Yet, beneath the surface lies a hidden environmental cost that many are unaware of – dark data. This article will delve into this often-overlooked aspect of digital operations and explore how businesses can play a crucial role in reducing their digital carbon footprint.

What is dark data?

When we talk about ‘dark data’, we are referring to data that is collected but rarely reused – representing most digital information. This data is collected, processed, and stored, often unnecessarily or for single-use purposes. If it was visible, like plastic, we would be horrified! 

Why is it a problem?

The energy consumption required to maintain dark data, housed in vast servers and increasingly gigantic warehouses, represents a significant environmental cost. With data storage requirements only set to increase, this growth is outpacing sustainability efforts in the sector. Despite this, guidance on reducing carbon footprints often neglects the digital sector’s substantial contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, with digital data processing already rivalling traditional sectors like automotive and aviation.

Digital carbon footprint

In 2019, digitisation accounted for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the production of digital data is rapidly increasing, projected to increase by 9% each year. Despite these alarming figures, little attention has been directed towards reducing the digital carbon footprint of organisations. 

The cause of dark data:

The cause of the growth in dark data can be attributed primarily to two interconnected factors: fear of deletion and inadequate data management practices. 

Fear of deletion

Organisations often harbour a fear of deleting data due to concerns about losing important information that might be needed in the future. This reluctance stems from several reasons:

  • Regulatory compliance: Companies are required to retain certain data for compliance with legal, tax, or regulatory mandates. The ambiguity about what needs to be kept, for how long, and in what format, can lead to a “save everything” approach.
    • Future utility: There’s a belief that data, no matter how trivial it seems today, might hold value in the future, especially with advancements in data analytics and AI technologies.
    • Liability and documentation: Data serves as a record of decisions, transactions, and interactions. There’s a fear that deleting data could remove evidence of due diligence or decision-making processes, potentially exposing the organisation to legal or reputational risks.

Inadequate Data Management Practices

The exponential growth of data volume, velocity, and variety has outpaced the development of effective data management strategies in many organisations. This inadequacy manifests in several ways:

  • Lack of policies and procedures: Without clear data retention policies, categorisation standards, and deletion protocols, organisations find themselves amassing large volumes of data without a clear strategy for managing it.
    • Poor data hygiene: Regular data cleaning and archiving are often overlooked in the face of more immediate business priorities. Over time, this leads to the accumulation of ROT data that clutters systems and makes data management even more challenging.
    • Inefficient storage and organisation: Data is often stored in siloed, unconnected systems without a unified management or governance framework. This fragmentation makes it difficult to understand what data exists, where it is stored, and whether it is still relevant or necessary.

What are the solutions?

The starting point for all organisations needs to be raising awareness of the environmental impacts of data storage, and the particular issue of dark data. 

Organisations also need robust data governance frameworks. We provide our clients with a template data retention policy to help foster a culture which prioritises data hygiene and lifecycle management to mitigate the environmental impact of excessive data storage.

Your pension and the planet: what you need to know.

Most of us view pensions as a distant and complex element of our financial planning. However, your pension represents a substantial investment sum, and its allocation profoundly impacts various sectors and issues, for better or for worse. With approximately £3 trillion invested in pensions in the UK alone, directing these funds towards ethical and environmentally positive sectors can significantly benefit our environment and society.

What Makes a Pension Ethical?

An ethical pension means more than just avoiding negative investment consequences. It’s about proactively supporting sectors that contribute positively to society, like healthcare and sustainable energy. Ethical pension funds operate on strict criteria, avoiding investments in harmful sectors like arms, tobacco, and fossil fuels, and instead, channelling your money into companies that uphold social and environmental values​​.

Providers and Their Policies

The following workplace pension schemes offer an ethical fund option:

Among the other providers:

  • Penfold have a sustainable pension plan option but you would need to check with them whether it is available on your workplace scheme
  • Scottish Widows appear to be applying ethical investment principles across some of their funds. See here. Check with them what options are open to your staff
  • Aegon appear to be applying ethical investment principles across some of their funds. See here. Check with them what options are open to your staff
  • Royal London have a range of sustainable pension funds. Check with them what options are open to your staff

It’s vital to understand what each provider means by “ethical” or “sustainable” and whether their policies align with your values​​. For a wider explanation of what makes an ‘ethical’ pension and reviews of the mainstream pension providers, see this Ethical Consumer review

The terminology used detailing pension funds can be misleading, with terms like “sustainable,” “responsible,” and “ESG” often used interchangeably yet meaning different things. Decoding these terms and understanding the actual policies behind them is crucial. Some funds may not be as ethical as they claim, so doing your homework is essential​​.

What to consider when choosing a pension provider?

  • Investment Sectors: Ensure your pension does not support industries detrimental to the environment, such as fossil fuels, or unethical sectors such as armaments​​.
  • Transparency: Opt for a provider that is open about where your money is invested. Lack of transparency can be a significant red flag​​.
  • Seek Advice: Consulting with an ethical financial adviser can provide personalised guidance tailored to your values and financial goals​​, this is particularly useful if you wish to invest in specific projects. The Ethical Investment Association is a good place to start in the UK. 

As more people become aware of the impact of their investments, the demand for ethical pensions is likely to increase. This demand can drive more pension providers to adopt stricter ethical standards and offer more transparent and genuinely ethical investment options. Opting for an ethical pension is among the most powerful financial decisions you can make, allowing you to ensure your investments contribute positively to the planet and support initiatives that directly impact ethical, low carbon, and climate-friendly projects.

Are all green energy tariffs as green as they seem?

The energy market is teeming with tariffs labelled as ‘green’ or ‘renewable,’ but what lies beneath these claims? According to the Ethical Consumer, many suppliers buy Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin Certificates (REGOs) to market fossil fuel-derived energy as ‘green electricity.’ These certificates can be traded on a secondary market, allowing suppliers to claim their energy is green without sourcing it directly from renewable resources.

Ethical Consumer highlights Good EnergyEcotricity and GEUK as ‘best buys.’ These are the only tariffs that can be genuinely considered 100% renewable. For those seeking tailored advice, a specialist broker like Squeaky can guide you through the process, ensuring environmental considerations are at the forefront of your decision.

If you are a business with substantial energy needs, e.g. from manufacturing processes or large-scale data processing, you may be able to benefit from a Power Purchase Agreement. Such agreements involving sourcing renewable energy directly and can provide a stable, greener and often more affordable source of electricity over the long term. Again, specialists such as Squeaky are a good place to start in exploring such possibilities.

Tenant Rights and Green Energy

Directly Paying Tenants

If you are a commercial tenant directly paying for the electricity bill, you are legally entitled to change your energy supplier. Ofgem’s advice on how to switch suppliers as a tenant says that a “default supplier clause” in your tenancy agreement allows your letting agent or your landlord to have the final decision on hiring a preferred energy supplier regardless of your preference. However, under this situation, you can still legally request the change. 

Tenants Not Directly Paying for Electricity

For those not directly paying for electricity, the situation is more complex. The decision to change suppliers lies with the landlord. However, you can explore modifying your tenancy agreement to become the bill payer or persuade your landlord about the benefits of switching suppliers. If you are a commercial tenant in a shared building, consider joining forces with the other tenants to put pressure on your landlord to change.

Distinguishing truly green tariffs from those masquerading as sustainable is crucial in making ethical and environmentally conscious choices. Whether you’re selecting a tariff for your home or navigating the complexities of tenant rights, understanding the intricacies of the green energy market empowers you to make informed decisions. To explore the issues involved here in more detail, see this excellent guide from Ethical Consumer Guide to Gas and Electricity Tariffs or this Insight piece from Squeaky.

A digital illustration showing a person standing at a fork in a path, contemplating two distinct landscapes. On the left, a green and lush environment symbolizes renewable energy, complete with a sun and leaf icon floating above. On the right, a dark, industrial landscape represents fossil fuels, with a smokestack and oil barrel icon.