Data that doesn’t cost the earth: A decade of progress

In this guest post, Chris Pennington, director of energy and sustainability at Iron Mountain Data Centers, on the great strides the server farm industry has taken to “green up” its act over the years

Datacentres are getting serious about sustainability. Ten years ago, they were sold based on three promises: security, uptime, and temperature. Since then, providers have added a stack of new propositions, many of them supporting sustainability; efficiency; renewable power; responsible water usage; with the aim of total decarbonisation.

The strides the industry has taken are impressive, particularly those made by the world’s major cloud service providers. Amazon, for example, is now the world’s largest purchaser of green energy and is aiming for 100% renewable power by 2025.

For the last five years, Google has matched 100% of its annual electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy. All the leading hyperscalers run highly energy-efficient datacentres and are focused on becoming net positive.

The colocation industry has also achieved spectacular reductions in terms of efficiency, water, clean energy, and decarbonisation. However, but with a mix of customers all running their own IT infrastructure set-ups, colocation providers can struggle to achieve the same levels of efficiency as the hyperscalers, who run a homogeneous set of infrastructure through entire datacentres. That said, operators can work collaboratively with customers to ensure they are using the most efficient racks possible.

As data has shifted from inefficient legacy facilities to specialist colocation and cloud businesses, energy requirements have dropped dramatically. The industry’s shift to renewables has also had a huge impact. So much so that, despite the exponential growth in ICT demand, power usage and emission levels have not risen proportionally.

According to the IEA, internet traffic rose by 440% between 2015 and 2021, with datacentre workloads increasing by 260%. Comparatively, datacentre energy usage only increased between 10% and 60%. Despite efficiency improvements over the last few years, faster progress must be made if the industry is serious about cutting emissions and achieving net-zero.

But what is encouraging the industry to do this? There are three key drivers that are becoming increasingly important as time goes on: growing regulation, increasing customer demand for more sustainable solutions, and the fact that it’s good for business and, equally important, the planet.

Growing regulatory constraints

The expansion of the datacentre industry will depend on its ability to demonstrate a positive impact on local communities and infrastructure, as opposed to being a burden. As the pandemic demonstrated, adopting hybrid working patterns can significantly reduce the emissions associated with commuting into offices, but this new digital world has a vast carbon footprint from electricity generation – an average of 36g CO2 equivalent per MB according to Climate Neutral Group’s best estimates, alongside significant water consumption.

Worldwide, it is estimated that datacentres consume about 3% of global electricity and account for around 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions. These numbers are only increasing, leaving no room for complacency.

Voluntary codes of conduct are now giving way to direct regulation at national and regional levels, with environmental performance legislation in the US and the upcoming EU Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in Data Centres setting the bar far higher. Datacentre construction has – at various points in recent years – been put on hold by governments in countries including The Netherlands, Ireland, and Singapore. Maximum footprints, minimum efficiency levels, and obligatory sharing of waste heat are among the new requirements, with more expected, depending on each region’s needs. Datacentre operators must therefore stay a step ahead, by exceeding all regulatory requirements across their entire ecosystem.

Supporting clients’ sustainability goals makes good business sense

Businesses are getting more serious about sustainability. In response to the climate crisis, companies have started setting aggressive climate goals and the number of businesses committed to these targets is growing faster than ever.

Last year more than 13,000 companies – representing over 64% of global market capitalisation and nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions – disclosed their emissions through the CDP. Climate impact reporting is also becoming more comprehensive to include the indirect emissions from supply chains and downstream use of products. As an industry that supports our clients’ critical data and infrastructure needs, we play an important role in providing solutions that help companies achieve these expanding goals.

The next decade will be critical in the battle against climate change, and datacentres can play a unique and impactful role in supporting positive change. Sustainability can only be improved through cross-industry collaboration with governments, standard-setting bodies, and customers, through thousands of tiny and carefully monitored step-changes. Critically, tech companies have a responsibility to educate their customers on the environmental impact of digitalisation and their data storage, so together, they can consume less, even if there’s a need to store more.

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