Digital technologies are playing an increasingly important role in modern life, and data centres play no small part in this. But while demand is growing, so too will data centres’ global carbon footprint, if these organisations do not make a concerted effort to limit their emissions.
According to the International Energy Agency, data centres and data transmission networks account for nearly 1% of energy-related Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. And while this may not seem like an enormous amount, these emissions will need to be halved by 2030 in order to meet Net Zero goals.
So it’s no surprise that, as the Uptime Institute notes in its latest global survey, data centre operators are under increasing pressure as they face heightened scrutiny, new regulations and further reporting requirements when it comes to sustainability.
Despite this, there are currently no standardised reporting requirements in place, which can lead to a lack of accountability, greenwashing and missed opportunities to improve efficiency.
The first step then, must be to encourage transparency in data centre sustainability reporting.
Current state of sustainability reporting
The data centre industry as a whole has a carbon footprint larger than the aviation industry – and yet it is only recently that sustainability has become a focus, in part driven by customer demand.
Although there is a desire in the global data centre industry for accurate and consistent sustainability reporting, any consensus still seems some way off. At present, there is a complete lack of formal regulation in terms of measurement, metrics, and indeed reporting – leading many environmentalists to accuse the industry of simply greenwashing.
Organisations that undertake specific measures such as carbon offsetting schemes may appear sustainable – but this is not necessarily the case.
Measuring energy efficiency and emissions
There are a variety of metrics data centre operators can use to measure their efficiency and, in theory, sustainability. Most common are PUE (power usage effectiveness), WUE (water usage effectiveness), and CUE (carbon usage effectiveness), as well as tracking Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.
All of these approaches have their benefits, especially when taken together. Measuring PUE, for example, is useful for benchmarking data centre efficiency. Organisations can use this metric as a baseline to measure their data centre efficiency, and once again to measure the effect of any changes made. This can help reduce power consumption and energy costs overall. However, operators need to realise that focusing only on PUE without thinking about the underlying efficiency of the computing itself can lead to wasteful computing even though the PUE is seen to be improving.
Moreover, by using WUE in conjunction with PUE and CUE metrics, data centres can reduce both energy use and the amount of water and electrical power needed to run the facility efficiently.
The three scopes of emissions established by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, meanwhile, are a way of categorising the different kinds of emissions an organisation creates both in its own operations and as a result of its wider supply chain. In short, Scopes 1 and 2 are those emissions that are owned or controlled by the organisation, whilst Scope 3 emissions are a consequence of the activities of the company but occur from external sources not owned or directly controlled by it.
Data centres that measure and publish all of the above are already well on their way to creating a more transparent and sustainable industry – but more still needs to be done.
The need for greater transparency
Greater transparency in reporting will help everyone – customers, investors, and regulators alike – to evaluate how sustainable data centres actually are. In the past, things like Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) may have been enough to satisfy end-users, but now, with the current climate crisis we face, it’s vital that the data centre industry does more.
Some larger data centre users and operators are already starting to make a change. Google, for example, aims to reduce 50% of its combined Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 absolute emissions before 2030. However, the industry still has a long way to go. For example, Google’s reporting obscures the fact its Scope 1 and 2 emissions have increased in the last five years by 152%.
Greater transparency in data centre sustainability reporting would lead to several benefits both in the short and long term. As a start, it provides a source of accountability. As there are currently no reporting standards in place, data centres cannot be held accountable for their energy usage, emissions, or overall environmental impact. Ultimately, this leads only to further environmental harm.
The main issue is that data centres may be reporting and publishing information that is incomplete, misleading, or even simply untrue. This inaccurate sustainability reporting makes it difficult for customers to make informed decisions – so the whole industry ends up being less sustainable, even when there are genuinely sustainable data centres in the mix. What’s more, the lack of standards and requirements for reporting negatively impacts data centres themselves. Without any set approach to follow, data centres can easily miss vital information which may otherwise help them reduce their carbon emissions, and improve their energy efficiency, for example.
This lack of transparency, as well as the lack of any standardisation around how and how often the data centre industry conducts its reporting, ultimately means that many organisations’ ‘green’ initiatives amount to little more than greenwashing.
The journey to true sustainability
So, how can we reverse this trend? For a start, there are several helpful approaches emerging in the sustainability space – such as decarbonisation. Many PPAs and other offsetting projects are opaque and do not provide a clear perspective of where the energy is coming from and how green it is. Instead, matching electricity consumption with carbon-free energy generation from resources on the same local and regional grids at every hour of the day can result in a fully decarbonised electricity system.
At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the barriers that many data centre operators face that may limit their journey to sustainability. For example, it is very difficult to source 100% renewable energy, 24 hours a day. A more effective approach is to put energy-intensive operations in locations that can accommodate 100% renewable energy. In fact, for many customers, 10% or less of their applications that are truly latency-sensitive need to be close to business operations. The other 90% can be housed anywhere. So optimised locations like Iceland and other low carbon intensity Nordic locations should be the obvious choice.
Greenwashing – whether deliberate or not – makes it difficult for consumers and businesses to make informed decisions, and ultimately puts both data centres’ reputations and the environment at risk.
Starting with transparent reporting, the data centre industry must make the changes needed to genuinely improve and implement sustainable, energy efficient practices worldwide – ensuring supply is able to keep up with increasing demand without endangering the planet.