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Biodiversity's importance to sustainable datacentre computing

Want to advance sustainability targets? It’s time to add biodiversity to your cloud equation

IT providers might have enough on their plates with environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements, but experts say adding biodiversity to the mix can help close the distance on sustainability and net-zero goals.

The head of environmental digital strategy at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), Gordon Blair, warns that efficiency gains alone won’t reduce emissions sufficiently. “It’s particularly urgent, given the level of innovation in the digital sector with the potential to significantly increase carbon emissions, including from AI [artificial intelligence],” says Blair.

He points out that more awareness of technology’s contribution to emissions is needed, alongside developed frameworks and more transparent reporting.

According to the UK government-sponsored Global Centre on Biodiversity for Climate (GCBC), the conservation and restoration of ecosystems such as forests, croplands, peatlands and wetlands could provide up to a third of the mitigation effort required until 2030 to keep temperature increases below 2°C.

Joe Baguley, chief technology officer EMEA at VMware, believes biodiversity could play a larger role in datacentre sustainability goals, but although operations frequently consider energy and environmental planning in tandem, few have gone further.

“Yes, there’s all the, ‘We’re going to green it’, or, ‘Put gardens on the roof’, all the usual stuff, but customers rarely mention biodiversity,” he says. “People tend to think if they’ve got renewable power, they’re fine.”

Appropriately designed mixed-use or brownfield projects can incorporate biodiversity aspects in ways that complement energy-saving and waste or water reduction initiatives, accelerating progress towards net zero.

For example, an essentially barren former coal-fired power station can be redeveloped to provide sustainable habitats for local flora and fauna underneath solar panels, thereby improving the soil, including its ability to absorb carbon.

“Lots of people assume a field of solar panels is a bad thing, but actually it can be doing wonders for biodiversity, supporting butterflies and other types of insects,” says Baguley.

There’s a dearth of broader sustainability conversations that link biodiversity to value, rolling it together with issues from ammonia and nitrate pollution, water quality, species inter-relationships, and more, he confirms.

Baguley warns that moving biodiversity up the priority list will be tough, not least because redeveloping existing sites presents myriad difficulties for achieving those synergies between water, power, data and the local environment.

That said, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals pinpoint biodiversity as essential to climate change mitigation, he points out. “When we start to see focus in reporting on biodiversity of the supply chain, that will start to move behaviours,” Baguley notes. 

Helen Roy, an ecologist at UKCEH, says ecosystems regulate climate by storing and absorbing carbon, and can help societies mitigate climate change-related risks of floods, droughts and heatwaves.

“Preserving or restoring habitats provides nature-based solutions for the climate crisis by increasing carbon sequestration and our resilience to global warming,” she says.

Biodiversity regulation

A regulatory push is in train, with UK biodiversity net gain (BNG) requirements in force from January 2024. These requirements mean site developers must describe how they will improve biodiversity in their area, achieving a BNG of at least 10%.

According to a TechUK presentation in October 2023 from partners at global law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP), this will affect datacentres. It means outlining the biodiversity baseline at a site and submitting BNG-compliant plans directly related to the local geography, using official metrics, to local planning authorities for approval before projects commence, with some exemptions. Site plans may involve third-party sites and agreements or partnerships with local organisations.

However, some may require a BNG of more than 10%, with offsetting credits potentially fairly costly, according to BCLP.

Stacey Cougill, co-founder and director of built environment and sustainability consultancy Eight Versa, says: “People are starting to wake up to the fact that biodiversity is important for all the ecosystems to be working effectively.”

Biodiversity has both direct and indirect impacts on climate, with urban biodiversity also “hugely important”. It’s not just about the sort of pristine natural habitats that might typically spring to mind. Appropriately designed green infrastructure enhancements that foster biodiversity can also reduce operating costs and increase energy efficiency, says Cougill.

“We’ve worked with many clients on sustainable buildings,” she says. “Even green roofs in parallel with solar PV [photovoltaics] can make a big difference on a site. And because the demands of a datacentre are so huge, it can be a no-brainer to have that biodiversity enhancement.”

Planted walls – vertical gardens – can deliver cooling impacts through transpiration. Certain green roofs can support wildlife with moderately sized substrates that aren’t too heavy for structural loads. This can reduce energy demand, providing insulation in winter and cooling in summer. Depending on the design, different benefits may be delivered and maintenance can be minimal, she says.

According to European Commission reporting, soils are the second largest active store of carbon, after the oceans, comprising some 40,000 billion tonnes (bt). More carbon is stored in soil than in the atmosphere (760bt) and in vegetation (560bt) combined, constantly cycled between the soil and the atmosphere. Emissions of CO2 from soil to atmosphere are about 10 times that from fossil fuels.

“You can use any aspect of a building, choosing the correct vegetation. Different sets of substrate will support different species,” says Cougill. “You might have pebbled areas or deadwood logs, local species of flora and fauna, small additions reflecting different topography and factors that affect biodiversity in the built environment.”

Biodiversity impacts are already feeding into financial and environmental reporting in some instances, she says. These changes will become increasingly impactful as they spread through and across industry supply chains.

“Obviously, you’re looking at carbon footprint and carbon reduction, but for carbon neutrality or net zero, you’ll have to offset – are they premium for biodiversity? Then there are other aspects, like local projects and what value that adds,” says Cougill. “Biodiversity is the bigger picture, linking everything – air quality, stormwater attenuation, healthy faces and places.”

Biodiversity is no fringe issue, with several major international conferences already scheduled for 2024. After all, UK secretary of state for energy security and net zero Claire Coutinho told COP28 in December: “Along with rapid decarbonisation, action to protect and restore nature offers one of the most promising, affordable solutions to climate change.”

Indirect initiatives are already proving their value.

For example, Michelle Wallace, head of community and operations at datacentre organisation Host in Ireland, says its DCs for Bees initiative connects biodiversity and sustainability efforts. “For us, right now, it’s the very best thing we can do with the resources that we have,” she says. “We wanted to create something that can be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Working with land-use experts and the Irish National Biodiversity Centre to discover what its typically urbanised members could do, Host in Ireland learned that 99 species of solitary wild bees – pollinators critical for biodiversity – are in “scary decline”.

“Orchards are diverse and rich ecosystems. Flowers are early feeders for pollinators, and then you’ve got fruit fermenting and benefiting soil. You’re supporting so many types of life,” she says.

It was initially aiming for 300 orchards, but three weeks later, 1,200 orchards had been pledged – community resources connecting all 32 Irish counties. By November 2023, the number rose to 3,587, comprising nearly 18,000 trees that can also help track climate change effects.

With 58 partners – including eight datacentres – it created a pollinator support plan, with 42 specific actions that digital infrastructure companies can take, from land use to the supply chain, including how to influence customers or employees.

For Wallace, activating people through their imaginations can be a huge driver of change. DCs for Bees has begun planting flower bulbs to increase orchard biodiversity and is looking to international partnerships. “We can do more and faster,” adds Wallace. “I have three kids; I want them to have a future.”

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