Saturday, June 22, 2024

How data centres can become an ally towards net zero

Anthea van Scherpenzeel

Anthea van Scherpenzeel, Senior Sustainability Manager, Colt DCS

Commitments and action towards sustainability is more important than ever, and businesses must take action now. Data centres are regularly a topic of conversation due to the high energy consumption needed to power them. For example, it is estimated that global data centre and network electricity consumption in 2022 was around 1-1.3% of global final electricity demand, with data centres accounting for almost a fifth of Ireland’s entire electricity use.

It’s essential that we start making change with tangible targets and responsible roadmaps to reduce the effect of data centres’ energy consumption on the planet. And yet, many in the industry are overwhelmed in how they begin on their sustainability journeys. Whether it’s a lack of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data, internal expertise, or a culture that prioritises speed and performance over green credentials, the IEA states that improvement is needed as soon as possible in the data centre market.

Looking ahead, in order to successfully address environmental challenges at the rate required to reach a worldwide net-zero economy, science-based targets and roadmaps must be established. It is the duty of those in the market to progress in adopting the most sustainable practices possible so that, as demand rises with new technologies and developing markets, its ESG impact can be reduced. It is more important than ever that actions align with science that sits behind the Paris Agreement, as the AI industry alone is predicted to consume as much energy as the Netherlands by 2027.

How can we set science-based targets?

Science-based targets highlight organisations short- and long-term commitment to combatting climate change. If targets support the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, then it is seen to be science-based. The sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released not too long ago, and it reiterates the near linear link between the increase in CO2 emissions due to human activities and future global warming. In line with the most recent Net Zero Standard set forth by the Science-based Targets initiative (SBTi), Colt DCS resubmitted its science-based targets in 2023. The aims include fuel, power, waste, and water, among other environmental issues. These objectives are essential for data centres themselves to make progress, as well as helping customers achieve their own net-zero objectives.

In order to prevent the worst effects of climate change and establish a global net zero economy, businesses must cut their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in accordance with science-based targets and roadmaps that specify the amount and pace of reduction. This extends to Scope 3 emissions – which are frequently the hardest to monitor and manage – where data centre and business leaders must ensure that partners are on the same path to sustainable practices. To be held accountable, the data centre industry must commit, create, submit, share, and disclose their science-based targets.

While science-based targets are essential for to reducing environmental impacts, data centre operators also need to make sure that their sustainability initiatives addresses all 3 ESG pillars. Many companies concentrate on the ‘E’, since it is simpler to evaluate the data’s granularity, but social and governance issues are also crucial. A deeper focus on the “S” and the “G” can prove to be a crucial distinction, whether it’s in terms of interacting with local communities, protecting, or making sure that governance and reporting are up to par.

Moving from promises, to action

Now that these science-based goals have been established, data centres should then look at turning promises into action. Intelligent transitions to new, environmentally friendly materials, technologies, and energy sources lessen the environmental effect of data centres. Reducing a data center’s carbon footprint can be achieved, for example, by using refrigerants with a lower global warming potential or by moving to greener fuel options and obtaining renewable energy.

In order to guarantee that sustainability becomes an essential component of business strategy, a cultural shift is also required within organisations. In addition to reorienting internal attitudes, achieving goals rests heavily on working together with customers and suppliers. At the heart of the sector needs to be agreement and alignments – as sustainability can’t be a tick-box exercise.

Measuring progress is a crucial part to the path to sustainability. Good communication with suppliers and partners is essential for tracking Scope 3 emissions in reporting, not only for data centres but also for the companies that use them. This data exchange will be more crucial than ever to obtain a comprehensive picture of sustainability consequences along the whole value chain, especially with the impending EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).

Science-based targets are the way forward

A major reduction in the carbon footprint of the digital infrastructure sector may occur if the data centre industry implemented science-based goals and policies as best practices. Rather than merely focusing on everyday operations, the ultimate goal should be on entrenched acts that start as soon as property is purchased. Data centres need to ensure that every aspect of the site lifecycle—including operations, materials, construction, and equipment—is as sustainable as feasible. Monitoring embedded carbon is crucial to tracking the entire impact of a project.

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Energy Manager magazine. Subscribe here.

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