With $20bn a year being spent on new data storage, the IT sector’s ballooning carbon footprint is of growing concern. Mike Scott looks at the firms leading the way on greener data centres

Think of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and power stations, huge industrial facilities and chemical works come to mind.

The IT sector, in contrast, is associated with minimalist clean lines and cutting-edge apps. Even its factories are famously pristine, controlled environments with the few people that are there wandering around in head-to-toe white body suits.

Many of the latest digital advances sound inconsequential and nebulous – cyberspace, the cloud – and they have allowed many industries to "dematerialize" their products, such as books, CDs and DVDs, so that they now exist chiefly online.

The internet will likely be the largest single thing we build as a species

Further progress is promised by technologies including the internet of things, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and blockchain. As a result, most people think that the digital economy is inherently environmentally friendly because of its huge potential to improve efficiency and reduce waste.

But this digital construct has physical foundations in power-hungry data centres, and digital’s astonishing growth in recent years has seen it quietly become one of the biggest energy consumers of any sector. “The internet will likely be the largest single thing we build as a species,” says Greenpeace, which calculates that the...

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