IT Sustainability Think Tank: Risk and resilience – two sides of the same climate coin

Against a backdrop of rising energy costs and supply uncertainty, cutting the amount of power their ICT estate consumes can also help enterprises curb their carbon emissions

During the UK’s sweltering heatwave this summer, many people encountered an additional challenge to the stifling temperatures – problems accessing their emails, streaming services or items stored in the cloud. Google, Amazon and Oracle all experienced server outages as their cooling systems struggled in the record-breaking heat.

In a year of floods, hurricanes, extreme heat and drought, the present-day reality of climate change was hard to miss. But for the ICT sector, this was an unprecedented wake-up call. As businesses grapple with their climate futures, can they reduce their vulnerability to its impacts, at the same time as cutting the emissions that are causing it? Luckily, the answer is yes – with the help of climate intelligence.

For a sector that deals in “virtual” concepts like bytes and the cloud, IT has an outsized carbon footprint. “Every click and keystroke generates a piece of data that is backed up by physical servers which require round-the-clock power and cooling,” points out Wired. Those servers are housed in an estimated eight million datacentres around the world – which use about 3% of the world’s available energy, and create around 2% of its greenhouse gas emissions. Through their energy consumption alone, datacentres have the same-sized carbon footprint as the aviation industry.

Keeping servers cool requires vast quantities of water as well as energy, adding to the environmental burden. In the US, datacentres are estimated to consume 1.7 billion litres every day. In a world experiencing increasing water stress, that is a problem.

“Global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past 100 years and continues to grow,” warns UNESCO. “Combined with a more erratic and uncertain supply, climate change will aggravate the situation of currently water-stressed regions, and generate water stress in regions where water resources are still abundant today.”

The tech sector is leading on climate change in many ways, with some of the biggest players making great strides towards – and even beyond – their net-zero goals. Google matches 100% of its energy consumption with renewable sources, and offset the entirety of its historic emissions in 2020. Microsoft has committed to being carbon neutral and “water positive” by 2030, and offsetting all legacy emissions by 2050. Apple says it will reach net zero by 2030, and Amazon has a 2040 target.

It’s not only the big corporations that are putting sustainability at the heart of their operations. Managing assets throughout their lifecycles is a core function of many enterprises’ IT asset management (ITAM) strategies. It makes good business sense: design intelligently, invest with future requirements in mind, and optimise efficiency and usage – all while reducing wastage and cost.

Applying these principles to not just the hardware, but to the entirety of the datacentre (or manufacturing facility, mast or other built asset), points the way forward to a more sustainable, and more resilient, future for the sector.

Shocks and stresses from climate change are accelerating in frequency and intensity – and are now locked in for decades, regardless of how quickly we decarbonise. They already cost the sector billions: between 2016 and 2018, extreme weather events caused $874m in damage to just one US company, AT&T. What we must urgently do now to keep the world’s critical IT infrastructure online is to adapt it to the unprecedented conditions it will face.

Climate intelligence

Climate intelligence (CI) is business intelligence for managing risk. With CI, IT professionals and estate owners can look at any built asset anywhere in the world to pinpoint its risk from hazards such as flooding, heat or drought – and then take steps to reduce it.

CI can be used to benchmark a company facility or property against similar assets to ensure they remain competitive, analyse a potential new development location, or see where supply issues could arise.

For the UK datacentre operators affected by the summer’s heat, CI could provide insights into when, how often and how severely they can expect similar events in the near, mid- or long-term future – enabling them to adapt accordingly.

For instance, CI might indicate that heatwaves or drought represent significant physical risk to IT assets. Adapting to these risks might mean upgrading to more energy-efficient or less water-intensive cooling systems – a win-win for boosting both sustainability and resilience.

In the UK, flooding presents a major physical risk to ICT infrastructure. The Climate Change Committee warns: “Increased frequency of coastal, fluvial [river] or pluvial [rainfall] flooding will damage key ICT assets, such as cables, masts, pylons, datacentres, telephone exchanges, base stations or switching centres.”

But great leaps in machine learning, AI and computational power now create CI that can analyse the risk of flooding – and the resulting need for adaptation – down to asset level.

In Dublin’s Central Area, CI tells us that under a “business as usual” emissions scenario, coastal flooding could affect more than 8,000 buildings – including critical IT infrastructure such as power stations and datacentres. With this clear foresight, the industry can act now to avoid damage and downtime later.

For the first time, CI creates a unified picture of climate risk that integrates both decarbonisation and adaptation – allowing IT enterprises to measure, monitor and act on their progress towards 360-degree climate alignment. From designing more durable buildings to ensuring business-critical resources can be locally relied upon in a fast-changing future, the time for hardwiring CI into ICT infrastructure is now.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

Data Center
Data Management