The UK Government announced its Net Zero strategy last October – and it turned the spotlight on the tech industry.
From data centre heat waste to e-waste and IT’s carbon emissions, the industry has plenty of work to do. The question is, where do we start? As sustainability conversations heat up following COP26, now is the time for tech to work on the answers.
While data centres contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, the ICT ecosystem as a whole – which encompasses personal digital devices, mobile phone networks and televisions – accounts for more than 2% of global emissions. That puts the ICT’s carbon footprint on a par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel. Meanwhile, e-waste is mounting up. The United Nations’ (UN) Global e-waste monitor 2020 regards it as the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, with a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) generated in 2019 alone. It predicted that by 2030, global e-waste will reach 74 Mt annually.
The tech industry faces a double challenge as digital adoption accelerates, the datasphere booms and legacy infrastructure is refreshed. The world is hungry for data-driven services and technologies, and this is impacting the sustainability of the industry at large. While more needs to be done, progress is already underway and opportunities for sustainable innovations are afoot.
The data centre conundrum: cooling energy use
Saving the planet falls on everyone’s shoulders, but the data centre industry in particular must step up. The Government’s report flags data centres as a prime source of wasted heat, that could be used to warm homes and businesses. Currently, data centre heat re-use initiatives are relatively thin on the ground in the UK, highlighting missed opportunities to improve industry-wide sustainability.
The good news is, this is not the beginning of the journey. Despite the industry often being characterised as energy hungry due to globally consuming an estimate of between 200 terawatt hours (TWh) and 500 TWh of electrical energy every year, action is being taken to become more sustainable. With fresh momentum this can be accelerated. For example, advanced cooling systems and the rise of cloud computing have already enabled huge improvements in energy efficiency, taking place at scale. Advances with intelligent data centre maintenance is taking this a step further.
Meanwhile, improvements in server technology, specifically server virtualisation, have delivered substantial advances in data centre power consumption, while also reducing data centre cost. For example, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead used server virtualisation to cut the number of servers it maintains down from 150 to just eight, and saved a predicted £1.7 million on related projects over the next three years. This resulted in its IT energy bill being reduced by a staggering 44%. It’s evident that investing in sustainability is win, win and long-term investments will help businesses’ bottom line.
E-waste: the next big hurdle
While the heat-waste questions are explored, there are other instrumental ways that the industry can become more sustainable. The rapid proliferation of electronic devices at the consumer level, along with the ongoing growth of enterprise-class computing and hyperscale, has made e-waste a growing and critical issue for IT leaders. With technology advancing rapidly and constantly upgraded, a lot of perfectly working electronic devices are considered obsolete and thrown away.
To many people’s surprise, e-wate was omitted from the climate summit’s agenda. The International Data Sanitisation Consortium (IDSC) urged COP26 president, Alok Sharma, to include e-waste in the agenda, calling its exclusion a missed opportunity to encourage engagement with the circular economy. It’s clear that businesses can’t wait until e-waste is on the government agenda and must take matters into their own hands and lead by example.
Coming together to ensure that the UK is a leader in promoting greener, more sustainable models of waste management is not only critical to tackling our climate emergency but a golden opportunity to create new forms of employment, economic activity, education and trade.
The UN predicted that by 2030, global e-waste will reach 74 Mt annually. This is a global issue. Collectively, we produce 50m tonnes of toxic electronic waste every year. However, the UK is one of the worst offenders with the country producing 24.9kg a person a year – nearly 10kg more than the EU average.
One of the key issues with this is that just 20% of global e-waste will be collected and recycled. The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. This results in hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.
Industry collaboration for a sustainable future
Tech companies must work together to build more sustainable ecosystems, encourage action and create greater awareness amongst consumers and leaders. This means looking beyond their own business, with a focus on collaboration for the greater good. For example, donating refurbished equipment to organisations and individuals in need can drastically reduce unnecessary purchasing and production.
Widespread adoption of the circular economy can result in financial gain at all levels. According to World Economic Forum, a circular economy leads to increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – with a reported $4.5 trillion in economic benefits until 2030. This benefits everyone, and individual businesses that contribute can reap monetary benefits, enhance their reputation, and help elevate the industry as a whole. This will serve as a balm to both e-waste and data centre heat wastage woes.
There is obviously still a long way to go before the industry can claim to be green. But technology companies can play their part by introducing initiatives that help tackle the e-waste pandemic and change the direction of the prevailing linear ‘take, make and dispose’ model. Understanding the impact of ICT’s carbon footprint and the role of the data centre industry is a crucial first step. Tech leaders cannot wait to be told what to do, as they look ahead. It’s up to them to take the lead and take action now – and if they do it together everyone wins.