Most of the world’s Internet Protocol (IP) traffic goes through data centres. Greater connectivity is therefore propelling demand for data centre services and energy use (mostly electricity), with multiplying effects: for every bit of data that travels the network from data centres to end users, another five bits of data are transmitted within and among data centres.
Rapid improvements in energy efficiency have, however, helped limit energy demand growth from data centres and data transmission networks, which each account for about 1-1.5% of global electricity use. Nevertheless, strong government and industry efforts on energy efficiency, renewables procurement and RD&D will be essential to curb energy demand and emissions growth over the next decade.
Last updated Sep 27, 2022
Global renewable energy power purchase agreements by sector, 2010-2021
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.
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.