The world’s data centers are projected to surpass the airline industry as a greenhouse gas polluter by 2020, according to a new study by McKinsey & Co.

Over that time, the carbon dioxide emissions attributable to the electricity consumed by fast-expanding data centers will rise fourfold, the study estimates. The greenhouse gas impact of data centers is “not yet counted and likely to be very significant,” said William Forrest, the lead McKinsey consultant on the report.

The study, released on Wednesday at the Green Enterprise Computing Symposium in Orlando, Fla., mainly focuses on the cost- and energy-saving opportunities being squandered today in corporate and government data centers.

For example, computer servers are used at only 6 percent of their capacity on average, while data center facilities as a whole are used at 56 percent of peak performance. In other words, if data centers were hotels, they would be bankrupt and shut down instead of growing like kudzu.

In the old mainframe days, data centers were far more efficient but inflexible. In modern data centers, which use standardized technology from the personal computer industry, things are flexible but uncontrolled. One answer, Mr. Forrest said, is to bring some of the mainframe-style management disciplines to modern data centers.

The McKinsey study, which used data from the Uptime Institute, a research and advisory organization for data center users, said corporations should set the goal of doubling the efficiency of their data centers by 2012. It proposes a metric as a basis for action that it calls CADE, for Corporate Average Data Efficiency. The model, self-consciously, is the government’s fuel efficiency standards for cars. “It’s miles per gallon for data centers,” Mr. Forrest said.

The report also lists 10 “game-changing improvements” intended to double data center efficiency, ranging from using virtualization software to integrated control of cooling units. “It clearly makes more sense to become more efficient than to build another $100 million data center,” said Kenneth Brill, executive director of the Uptime Institute.

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