Rethinking the Environmental Impact of Big Data Initiatives

by Sergej Lugovic

Original paper "Lucivero, Federica. "Big data, big waste? A reflection on the environmental sustainability of big data initiatives." Science and engineering ethics 26, no. 2 (2020): 1009-1030."
The 2014 United Nations report lauded the data revolution's potential for sustainable development but overlooked a critical risk: the environmental impact of Big Data initiatives. Despite ethical debates focusing on privacy and access, the materiality of data and its environmental implications have been largely ignored. This paper addresses this gap by examining the ethical dimensions of Big Data's environmental impact. It highlights the normative language in data governance, the tension with environmental policies, and concerns of unfair distribution. Through this exploration, the paper aims to elucidate the ethical responsibilities of individuals and institutions in mitigating the environmental consequences of the data revolution.

Chapter: The Societal Value of Data

In an era where technology plays an increasingly pivotal role in shaping our world, the value of data in driving sustainable development has become undeniable. They are:

Technological Advancements: Recent leaps in technology, like wearable sensors and mobile phones, have facilitated extensive data collection, supporting sustainable development efforts.

Computing Capabilities and Cloud Services: Enhanced computing power and cloud services enable efficient data processing and storage, vital for sustainability-focused initiatives.

Applications Across Domains: From targeted marketing to healthcare advancements, data analytics drives solutions aligned with sustainability goals.

Portrayal of Data as a Solution: Policy makers and industry leaders position data as a catalyst for societal well-being and environmental sustainability.

Initiatives for Sustainable Development: Global initiatives emphasize using Big Data to achieve sustainability targets, ensuring accountability and progress monitoring.

Overlooked Environmental Implications: Despite benefits, rapid data production strains resources, necessitating a balance between innovation and environmental responsibility.

In the pursuit of leveraging data for societal progress, it is imperative to prioritize environmental sustainability. By acknowledging and addressing the environmental implications of data initiatives, we can ensure that technological advancements contribute positively to our collective future. Through responsible data governance and conscientious decision-making, we can harness the power of data to drive sustainable development while safeguarding the planet for generations to come.

Chapter: The Weight of the Cloud and the Environment

In an era where sustainability is a pressing concern, the relationship between Information and Communication Technology (ICT)—the backbone of Big Data initiatives—and environmental impact has garnered significant attention. Scholars have long noted the paradoxical nature of ICT's potential to both mitigate and exacerbate environmental challenges. They are:

Ambiguity of Sustainability: Despite the transformative potential of ICT in promoting sustainability, concerns have been raised regarding its actual environmental impact. Scholars and experts have highlighted the need to reconcile technological advancements with sustainability goals.

Direct Environmental Impacts: ICT infrastructure, particularly data centers, consumes vast amounts of energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The exponential growth of data centers' carbon footprint calls for urgent monitoring and mitigation measures.

Indirect Environmental Impacts: Beyond energy consumption, ICT disposal and user behaviors also pose significant environmental risks. Informal recycling practices and rebound effects exacerbate environmental degradation, necessitating a holistic assessment of ICT's environmental footprint.

Industry Response: In response to public scrutiny, the Big Tech industry has invested in energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources. However, these efforts address only one aspect of the environmental impact, overlooking broader concerns such as material disposal and data infrastructure expansion.

Navigating the Data Revolution: While efficiency improvements are commendable, broader questions about the sustainability and desirability of the data revolution remain unanswered. As data infrastructure continues to expand, a nuanced approach is essential to ensure environmental responsibility amidst technological progress.

The evolving landscape of ICT and data infrastructure demands a critical examination of its environmental implications. As we navigate the complexities of the data revolution, it is imperative to prioritize sustainability and environmental responsibility. By addressing the environmental challenges inherent in ICT and data initiatives, we can pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient future.

Chapter: The Ethics in the Matter

The materiality of Big Data initiatives holds significant ethical implications, intersecting with political, social, and environmental dimensions. Scholars have underscored the need to scrutinize the material substrate of the internet and data infrastructure, highlighting their societal and environmental ramifications. They are:

Material Turn in Internet Studies: Scholars have shifted focus from the symbolic to the material aspects of the internet, exploring the social construction of infrastructure and its impact on power dynamics. This "material turn" reveals the intricate relationship between technology, society, and ethics.

Environmental Implications of Data Centers: Research in cultural and media studies delves into the situatedness and material substance of data centers, unveiling their environmental, political, and cultural dimensions. The localization of data infrastructure reshapes landscapes and identities, prompting ethical inquiries into sustainability and societal impacts.

Normative Implications: Despite the ethical dimensions inherent in data initiatives, environmental considerations have been largely overlooked in ethical discourse. The language and rhetoric surrounding data often obscure its materiality and environmental consequences, necessitating ethical reflection and accountability.

Alignment with Sustainable Development Goals: Visions of Big Data for sustainable development collide with the reality of its environmental impacts. Ethical evaluation of data initiatives should consider their alignment with societal values such as sustainability and equitable resource allocation.

Fairness in Decision-Making: The material nature of data raises questions of fairness in resource allocation and decision-making processes. Considerations of environmental justice and distributive equity are essential in navigating the socio-economic and environmental impacts of data initiatives.

The ethical dimensions of Big Data extend beyond privacy and security concerns to encompass its environmental and societal impacts. As data initiatives continue to reshape landscapes and resource allocation, ethical reflection and accountability are imperative. By considering the materiality of data and its implications for sustainability and justice, ethicists can contribute to a more responsible and equitable digital future.

Policy Implications and the Role of the Ethicist

The burgeoning data economy has been likened to the oil-focused economy of the past, emphasizing data's significance in driving modern change. However, akin to oil, data production, collection, and processing carry environmental consequences often overlooked in mainstream discourse. The relentless expansion of the data economy, devoid of consideration for its environmental footprint, poses a significant challenge.

This paper contends that while Big Data initiatives hold promise for sustainable economies, their material substrate and environmental impacts present challenges overlooked by ethicists. Addressing these challenges requires ethical analysis across three key aspects:

  • Implicit Normativity: Current discourse surrounding data governance obscures individual and institutional responsibilities, necessitating a shift towards a sustainable and responsible discourse that acknowledges data as a limited resource.
  • Value Tensions: Balancing data initiatives with environmental policies requires a comprehensive assessment of their benefits and drawbacks. Ethicists can play a crucial role in articulating value inconsistencies and exploring stakeholders' normative positions.
  • Social Justice: As data storage becomes subject to rationing, issues of fairness in resource allocation and decision-making processes arise. Ethical analysis can inform criteria for just decision-making and democratize discussions on distributive criteria.

Ethicists are uniquely positioned to navigate these challenges and shape policy discourse around data and sustainability. A pragmatist approach, focusing on articulating diverse values and exploring plausible trade-offs, offers a promising framework for addressing the complexities of the data-sustainability nexus.

Policy implications include:

Promoting Sustainable Discourse: Incentivizing a discourse that acknowledges the environmental implications of data initiatives is essential. Awareness campaigns and institutional efforts can foster a culture of responsible data production and storage.

Holistic Assessment: Environmental implications should be integrated into assessments of data initiatives alongside their potential benefits. A comprehensive evaluation framework should consider both quantitative and qualitative impacts on the environment.

Institutional Oversight: Public institutions should engage in discussions on criteria for data selection and accountability in decision-making processes. Industry involvement should be complemented by public oversight to ensure societal and environmental interests are safeguarded.

In conclusion, mitigating the environmental impact of data storage necessitates a multifaceted approach that balances innovation with sustainability. Ethical analysis is instrumental in promoting responsible data practices and guiding policy decisions towards a more equitable and environmentally conscious data economy.

Food for Thought


As we delve into the ethical and environmental dimensions of data initiatives, it's crucial to navigate the complexities with clarity and purpose. This section serves as a reflection on the key insights and actionable steps outlined in the paper, inviting stakeholders to engage in meaningful dialogue and collective action.

  • Embracing Responsibility: The paper underscores the importance of acknowledging individual and institutional responsibilities in mitigating the environmental impact of data initiatives. Stakeholders must recognize their role in promoting sustainable practices and ethical data governance to ensure a more environmentally friendly approach to technology development.
  • Addressing Ethical Implications: By highlighting the ethical implications of data initiatives, the paper calls for a deeper examination of the societal and environmental consequences of digital infrastructure. Stakeholders must actively engage in discussions surrounding data governance, privacy protection, and equitable access to technology to address these ethical concerns.
  • Fostering Interdisciplinary Collaboration: The paper emphasizes the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle the complex challenges posed by data initiatives. Bringing together experts from diverse fields, including internet studies, media studies, anthropology, and ethics, can lead to innovative solutions that promote sustainability and social justice.
  • Promoting Sustainable Practices: Given the environmental implications of data initiatives, there's a pressing need to promote sustainability in technology development. Stakeholders should explore ways to reduce energy consumption, minimize waste generation, and adopt eco-friendly practices in data storage and processing to mitigate the environmental impact.
  • Advocating for Policy Change: Policymakers play a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of data initiatives. It's essential to advocate for policies that prioritize environmental sustainability, data ethics, and social justice. By enacting legislation that aligns with these values, policymakers can create a conducive environment for responsible technological innovation.
  • Empowering Public Awareness: Lastly, empowering public awareness is key to fostering a culture of responsible technology use. Educating individuals about the environmental impact of data initiatives and encouraging sustainable behaviors can drive positive change at the grassroots level. Through awareness campaigns, educational initiatives, and community engagement efforts, we can empower individuals to make informed choices about their digital footprint.

In conclusion, addressing the environmental and ethical challenges of data initiatives demands collective responsibility, interdisciplinary collaboration, and policy advocacy. 

About Sustainable Lean Science:

Sustainable Lean Science is dedicated to evolving scientific publishing by advocating for accessibility, sustainability, and impact. Our mission is inspired by research "The Secondary Experience of an Information System Enabling Scientific Communication" (2015) by Sergej Lugović, Vesela Motika Ltd, Ivan Dunđer from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FFZG) - Department of Information Science, and Marko Horvat from the University of Zagreb Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing.

Writen by; Sergej Lugović, PhD, and ChatGPT