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Data centres & networks

As the world becomes increasingly digitalised, data centres and data transmission networks are emerging as an important source of energy demand.

Data Networks Jpg

Key findings

Global renewable energy power purchase agreements by sector, 2010-2021

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Data centres and data transmission networks are responsible for nearly 1% of energy-related GHG emissions

Digital technologies have direct and indirect effects on energy use and emissions, and hold enormous potential to help (or hinder) global clean energy transitions, including through the digitalisation of the energy sector.

The data centres and data transmission networks that underpin digitalisation accounted for around 300 Mt CO2-eq in 2020 (including embodied emissions), equivalent to 0.9% of energy-related GHG emissions (or 0.6% of total GHG emissions). Since 2010, emissions have grown only modestly despite rapidly growing demand for digital services, thanks to energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy purchases by information and communications technology (ICT) companies and broader decarbonisation of electricity grids in many regions. However, to get on track with the Net Zero Scenario, emissions must halve by 2030.

Global stock of digitally enabled automated devices, 2010-2021

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Digital technologies can help increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions across the energy system

Digitalisation – the application of digital technologies – could have a major effect on emissions as an enabler in accelerating clean energy transitions. Across the energy sector, digitalisation can help cut costs, improve efficiency and resilience, and reduce emissions.

Advances in digital technologies and services, declining costs and ubiquitous connectivity have accelerated the digital transformation of energy in recent years, particularly in electricity networks. Grid-related investment in digital technologies has grown by over 50% since 2015, reaching 18% of total grid investment in 2021. However, further efforts by policy makers and industry are necessary to realise digitalisation’s full potential to accelerate clean energy transitions, including implementation of enabling standards, policies and regulations that prioritise innovation and interoperability while addressing risks to cybersecurity and data privacy.

Enabling digital technologies such as smart meters and distributed monitoring and control devices is essential to fully exploit the flexibility potential of the growing number of connected devices. As of 2021 an estimated 9 billion digitally-enabled automated devices are in use globally, including 1 billion smart meters. IEA analysis indicates strong growth in the deployment of these technologies, which could be further boosted by policy and regulatory frameworks.