Are your data centres muddying your carbon footprint?

By Fredrik Jansson, CSMO, Digiplex
Technology already plays a significant role in the sustainability plans of most businesses. It can help to reduce carbon-i...

Technology already plays a significant role in the sustainability plans of most businesses. It can help to reduce carbon-intensive activities in many ways – from reducing the need to travel to the digitisation of manufacturing and reduction of waste. But technology has its own carbon cost and understanding the factors that influence that is increasingly becoming part of the CSO’s role. Simply ‘sub-contracting’ the responsibility by outsourcing IT to cloud or data centre partners will no longer be enough. Businesses will be accountable not just for the financial and operational decisions they make over the management of IT, but the sustainability impacts of their choice of partner. And those are often more complex than they appear.

Last year’s Climate Action Day (20th September 2019), saw protests and demonstrations around the world urging action to reduce carbon emissions. For the first time these included walkouts by staff at Amazon, Microsoft and Google concerned that tech leaders were not doing enough to combat climate change. The drive to reduce energy consumption, and consequently carbon footprint, has created remarkable innovation across many sectors as organisations digitise and virtualise elements of their operations. But they have also led to an explosion of demand for data and computing resources which in turn has driven huge growth in data centres. These are the vast facilities which host the thousands of computers needed to manage not only corporate IT systems, but the cloud services that support everything from multinational business operations and fast-moving digital disrupters, to consumer services like photo-storage and video streaming. The sustainability of these facilities and the global IT industry’s appetite for energy is now attracting substantial public attention. 

Headline statistics highlight how power-intensive applications like cryptocurrencies draw more power than entire countries (bitcoin mining consumes more power than the whole of Colombia or Switzerland according to an ongoing Cambridge University study). But behind these egregious examples there is also growing awareness that even ‘normal’ behaviours in the digital world have a cumulative effect. Every online purchase, every social media post, every email, every streamed boxset, every selfie, starts a process in a data centre with an energy – and carbon – cost. 


Not all created equal

Cumulatively, the world’s data centres and digital infrastructure use more than 400TWh of electricity per year - around 3% of total global demand - and some sources predict this figure will reach 20% by 2025.  Data centres and digital infrastructure already create 700 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year - 2% of the global total. As the number of connected devices continues to balloon, with AI, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles and hundreds of other applications and new innovations continuing to produce and demand astonishing volumes of data, these numbers will only grow.  Even if they continue to grow at just the present rate, IT-linked carbon emissions will outstrip the aviation and shipping industries by the mid-2020s.

But the devil lies in the detail behind these broad numbers. Not all data centres are created equal. Some data centres are far more efficient, some use renewable energy, some are better designed, newer and better maintained. All of these factors, and more, can have a significant impact on how much energy is consumed in managing your outsourced IT. The gap between the best performers and the worst is not insignificant. Our own calculations suggest moving from a data centre with ‘average’ efficiency to one with market-leading efficiency could reduce overall energy consumption by as much as 30%.  Add to this the differences in the mix of energy supply, between renewable sources and carbon-based power, then this clearly can add up to significant differences in carbon footprint and in sustainability. The takeaway is clear: decisions made about where and how you store your data has a massive impact on the true sustainability of your organisation.

In light of this, it’s striking how many organisations remain oblivious to their digital carbon footprint. In a 2018 survey of executives in the Nordics, typically a region associated with proactive green policies, Digiplex found that although sustainability was the fastest rising factor driving business decision makers, 60% didn’t know the physical location of their data. Knowing where your data is, and the sustainability credentials of your data centre partners, is crucial. As highlighted above, individual data centres vary wildly in their efficiency and commitment to renewable energy.  Auditing where your data is located is the essential first step in reporting and managing the sustainability and carbon footprint of your IT.  


Asking the right questions

So how can you tell if your data centre is good, average or poor for sustainability? As a minimum, any organisation serious about sustainability should know the Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) rating for every data centre it uses. The PUE is an industry-recognised rating which looks at the power total consumption of a data centre and compares it to the power used by the servers themselves. The difference goes to cooling, and other auxiliary functions needed to keep the servers functioning. A lower value means more efficient operation with a greater proportion of the power consumed going to the value-adding work of the data processed in the servers. For example, if your data centre has an average PUE of 1.67, the data centre overhead (cooling etc) will be consuming 70% more energy than an efficient data centre with a PUE below 1.2. Can the carbon cost of that additional energy, unless the data centre runs on 100% renewable energy, be justified? Does the business recognise the financial cost implications or the reputational impact should consumer or pressure groups find out? Without an effective audit of where data resides and the comparative performance of the data centres supporting your business, it is difficult to make informed decisions and be confident in your sustainability credentials.


Location, management and supply

Efficiency of cooling is a major factor in driving lower PUE ratings. Clearly, the location and climate around the data centre itself have a major impact. But cooling isn’t simply a case of opening the windows and letting in cool air. Innovations such as Air-to-Air evaporative cooling use sophisticated and innovative technology to increase sustainability by reducing overall power consumption by up to 30%. Airflow filtration and management are an exact science and efficiency is also driven by good maintenance and management practices.  Newer data centres tend to have lower PUE ratings simply due to better technology and newer equipment. 

Knowing where the energy used to power the data centre comes from is also important. However, that is not always easy to ascertain – many operators are less willing to share details on their energy providers. At the recent DCD San Francisco conference, Dr Arman Shehabi from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory called on the industry to be more transparent around its energy use.  Greenpeace’s Click Clean campaign rates major internet companies on their use of renewables, along with a few large data storage providers; but really, any centre serious about their carbon footprint and willing to work in partnership on sustainability should be open about the source of their energy, without needing to have it unearthed by a third party.  You might argue that any centre truly serious about the issue is already well on its way to 100% renewable power - if it isn’t there already.

Geographical location is an issue here, too. On one hand, you can be as efficient as you like in your data centre, but if you’re chained to a 98% coal-powered grid, you’re throwing tonnes of CO2 out without another option. On the other hand, some sites may carry additional environmental benefits.  For example, heat recapture schemes, in which the heat generated by equipment is passed on to nearby businesses or homes, or used to generate power to return to the grid, are being developed at some sites. These can substantially temper your carbon impact. 

The imperative is no longer in question: sustainability reporting and risk management must extend to where and how your data is stored. IT has until now often escaped the scrutiny for its contribution to carbon footprints – but this is no longer the case. Regulators, pressure groups, activists and customers will be asking increasingly searching questions and Chief Sustainability Officers need to have the skills, knowledge and data to provide robust and transparent answers. As an illustration of changing attitudes, nearly seven out of 10 people in Sweden, Norway and Denmark want to have eco-labelling of digital services according to a recent survey commissioned by DigiPlex. Even more, 69%, believe that it is important for digital services to have as little climate impact as possible.

CSOs need to take action now to accurately audit and report on their organisation’s digital environmental footprint. They need to ask the right questions, demand the right data, and use the results to influence the right decisions around the data centre partners, performance and locations. Only by doing so can they continue to reduce the environmental impact, financial and reputational risks of the businesses they serve.


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