To tackle climate change, the world needs to get to a carbon-neutral economy sooner rather than later. Every source of emissions is under scrutiny–and that includes data centers.
The “not-in-my-backyard” movement (NIMBY) is starting to target data centers. Last year, the Greater London Authority announced that new housing in parts of London may not be possible for up to a decade–and blamed it on the huge electricity demands from data centers stretching the power grid to its limits.
It’s not uncommon to hear about communities pushing back on the creation of new data centers. Their heating, cooling, and energy requirements seem large compared to those of residential homes and typical offices. And there is no more prominent offender in the technology industry than the mining of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. While specific cases like central London are still real and impactful, it’s broadly unfair and inaccurate to say that data centers have a large environmental impact.
You can love Bitcoin or hate it, but if you care about climate change, doing something against blockchains or data centers isn’t going to make a difference. In fact, you might make things worse.
To put these problems in context, while the information technology industry is thought to produce 1.3 billion tons of carbon emissions annually, Bitcoin is only 1.6% of those emissions–and information technology itself is thought to be somewhere under 3% of global emissions.
Data centers reduce the total amount of power and the overall footprint of computing because they aggregate demand from many locations into highly efficient, centrally managed systems. The same work, done in the past, was distributed much more widely in buildings and offices. It was less efficient, but it was also less visible.
The useful question to ask is what work is being done in the data center–and how efficient and useful it is overall. For example. blockchains turn out to be very good at managing inventory data because they eliminate data entry errors and distribute standardized information to all participants. More accurate data in the supply chain means you can run the same business network with less inventory and fewer shipments.
The carbon footprint of shipping one container from Asia to the U.S. is about 4 tons, roughly equivalent to around 500,000 transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. Chances are good that an accurate blockchain-based inventory management system could reduce the total carbon footprint of most supply chains, even after considering the carbon footprint of the computing infrastructure.
Smart thermostats shut off the air conditioning when nobody is home. Web conferencing cuts back on business travel. Rooftop solar panels and distributed battery networks don’t scale without smart grid technology. There is no path to lower carbon output that doesn’t depend heavily on adding more information technology to our industrial infrastructure.
Every industrial revolution has needed an information technology revolution alongside it. Coal mining and distribution didn’t scale without railroads, and railroads didn’t scale without the telegraph. One of the most important applications for the first IBM mainframes was helping the electric utility industry scale up to serve hundreds of millions of homes and businesses.
If we want a new, decentralized industrial revolution built on efficient technologies like rooftop solar panels, smart cars, home batteries, and new digital manufacturing tools like 3D printers, it stands to reason that we may also need another information technology revolution to go with it.
The anecdotes around I.T.-enabled energy efficiency are endless, but the macro-level data backs this approach up. The world’s richest countries are also both the biggest spenders on information technology and are seeing the biggest declines in per-capita CO2 emissions. Per-capita U.S. emissions have declined 33% in the last 20 years. In the U.K., per-capita emissions have declined 50% in the last 20 years.
Energy-intensive mature economies must become information-intensive to support big shifts to renewable energy-and that’s the most viable path toward a carbon-neutral future.
Paul Brody is EY’s global blockchain leader.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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