Gregory Lebourg, Global Environment Director of OVHcloud, explains why radical transparency should drive data centre sustainability.
There’s no doubt that today’s environmental news headlines make for grim reading. According to the ONS, June 2023 was the hottest June since records began, and the average temperatures for the last five and 10 years have been the highest on record. Global action on decarbonisation is now urgent and the data centre industry has a critical role to play. According to ARCEP, the digital world accounts for 3-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Within that, the cloud accounts for approximately 15%.
It is clear that if we’re going to make progress, we have to be honest about it.
Trouble with transparency
When the quality improvement disciplines of Kaizen and Six Sigma were introduced in 1986, many organisations were able to radically improve their operations. Motorola, for example, saved over £13 billion by using the two methods together, and over half of the Fortune 500 uses elements of each to optimise how they operate.
However, very few, if any, observers called out how these organisations had created waste or mis-spent money prior to adopting new approaches. This is not the case with environmental sustainability.
We are at a pivotal moment for tackling our climate emergency, but shaming organisations in the process of making genuine sustainable change is counterproductive. Stern approaches are of course necessary for wasteful, inconsiderate organisations that prioritise profit over the planet, but it doesn’t help to condemn businesses on their journey to a sustainable future. We need to encourage a culture of change, not embarrassment.
Being open about sustainability and carbon emissions is not an easy process. Changing organisations for the better is a complex, political and often expensive journey. But if we’re to build a net zero future, we need both an honest, solid foundation and a radical commitment to transparency.
A strong sustainability strategy can have many benefits, including reducing costs, boosting productivity and increasing competitive advantage. Indeed, over a third (38%) of businesses would reject a supplier with a poor (or no) ESG strategy, showing that sustainability can clearly be more than just a cost centre when done correctly.
A culture of frankness and transparency can and will open up uncomfortable areas for improvement, but it can also create a virtuous circle of continuous change. It requires a broad bench of business stakeholders to truly examine ‘everything the light touches’ but by breaking it down into discrete boxes, it becomes more manageable.
Establishing a transparent approach to sustainability
Creating an effective sustainability strategy is a complex and multifactorial endeavour, but the first step is accurate measurement. It’s currently a requirement for large organisations in the UK to declare their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, but not Scope 3. However, Scope 3 emissions tend to be the larger part of the iceberg – for example, OVHcloud’s represents 55% of its total emissions – and are also more difficult to measure.
But once organisations have this understanding, it’s incredibly informative. For us, the carbon footprint associated with IT component manufacturing represents 41% of our total carbon footprint, with electricity representing 42%. This often surprises people but underlines my point: unless you have full knowledge of your emissions, you can’t possibly hope to survey the battlefield effectively.
Furthermore, given we’re all fighting the same enemy, it’s doubly important we measure in the same way, using industry-agreed benchmarks like PuE and WuE, within established frameworks like ISO standards.
This broad approach to measurement tends to shine a light on many areas that organisations have not considered. However, if we can take a deep breath and embrace this methodology, we’ll be better equipped to tackle the real carbon problem and not just the easy, visible one. That said, there are a number of factors that can make the journey easier:
Executive sponsorship: Sustainability and transparency need to be considered at every level. If there isn’t buy-in from the data centre manager and the C-suite, it’ll be an uphill struggle. On the other hand, leaders with a sustainability-first mindset can create a culture of honesty that permeates everything the company does.
Community: Radical transparency often reveals problems that organisations can’t solve by themselves. For example, recycling server motherboards and component packing foam is extremely challenging, but there are start-ups focused on tackling exactly these issues. Similarly, there are many third parties that offer consultancy around effective emissions measurement and can help with establishing sustainability strategies.
Avoidance is better: Recycling is good, but re-use and purchase avoidance is better. For example, re-using old (well-tested!) server components in slower, low-cost servers is better than disassembling and recycling the metals and plastics, although the latter is necessary eventually. At the same time, moving into an existing building is better than commissioning a new build (where possible). Construction has a very significant carbon footprint.
Data isn’t (always) knowledge: Even with effective measurement, teams may often have to admit they just don’t know things. For example, it can be difficult to assess whether a certain level of performance is good or bad. In some cases, you may have to wait for the ecosystem to catch up. But by putting a stake in the ground, you’re establishing a point of comparison and a benchmark for the industry to improve on or aspire to.
Concrete targets: Committing to external carbon and water-efficiency targets and joining initiatives like the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact is a public commitment to sustainability, and a demonstration of accountability. It shouldn’t be seen as something to be held over you – rather, it’s a motivator and goal. However, it’s crucial these targets are set within public frameworks (for example, ISO standards) so we’re all measuring in the same way.
Celebrate success: Transparency and sustainability are exceptionally challenging for data centre organisations – we use a lot of electricity and have a significant carbon footprint. However, it’s also important to celebrate success when targets are achieved and we take steps forward.
There’s no question that radical transparency is an uncomfortable and difficult process. Operating within stringent boundaries and finding creative solutions to issues will unquestionably challenge our teams, leadership organisations and established ways of thinking.
However, if we can rise to the challenge and create a continuous cycle of improvement, then adopting new sustainability strategies will take us as an industry in an interesting, profitable, exciting, and more importantly, incredibly necessary and meaningful direction. And that is a very, very worthwhile goal indeed.