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How to make tangible ESG gains on the road to going green

Image: Adobe Stock / sitthiphong

Anthea van Scherpenzeel, Senior Sustainability Manager at Colt DCS, takes us through how to create achievable science-based goals for data centres.

In the past decade, sustainability has quickly moved from nice-to-have to a top business priority. One sector that often comes under fire for its impact on the planet and high energy consumption is data centres. For instance, estimated 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.  

The need for tangible targets and responsible roadmaps is evident to reduce the impact of data centres’ energy consumption. However, many industry players simply don’t know where to start. 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 urgently in the data centre space. 

Moving forward, setting science-based targets and roadmaps are fundamental to tackle environmental issues effectively at the pace needed to achieve a global net-zero economy. It is the responsibility of this industry to develop the most sustainable practices so that, as demand increases due to new tech and expanding markets, its ESG impact will be minimal. And with the AI industry alone predicted to consume as much energy as the Netherlands by 2027, the need for actions in line with the science that sits behind the Paris Agreement is more urgent than ever. 

What is meant by science-based targets? 

Science-based targets underline the short- and long-term commitment of businesses to take action on climate change. Targets are considered science-based if they align with the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth Assessment Report reaffirming the near linear relationship between the increase in CO2 emissions due to human activities and future global warming.

Science-based targets and roadmaps tell businesses how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if we are to achieve a global net zero economy and prevent the worst effects of climate change. This extends to Scope 3 emissions – often the most challenging to track and manage – where data centre and business leaders must ensure that partners are on the same path to sustainable practices. Data centre leaders must commit, develop, submit, communicate, and disclose their science-based targets to remain accountable. 

Although science-based targets are vital to improve environmental impact, data centre operators must not forget to cover all three pillars of ESG in their sustainability strategies. Many organisations focus on the ‘E’ with the granularity of data easier to assess – however, social and governance prove just as important. Whether that’s connecting with local communities, safeguarding, or ensuring that governance and reporting are up to scratch, a further focus on the ‘S’ and the ‘G’ can prove a key differentiator. 

So, I’ve got my targets, now what?  

With these science-based targets in place, it’s time for data centres to turn targets into actions. Smart switches to new, more sustainable materials, technologies, and energy sources reduce the impact of data centres on the planet. For instance, switching to greener fuel options and procuring renewable energy or choosing refrigerants with a lower global warming potential, go a long way in reducing a data centre’s carbon footprint. 

A cultural change is also needed to ensure that sustainability becomes a vital part of business strategy. As well as shifting internal mindsets, collaboration with customers and suppliers will be crucial to meeting targets. Being on the same page, and not just thinking of sustainability as a tick-box exercise, must be at the industry’s core.  

Going one step further, measuring progress is an essential part of the sustainability journey. Close relationships with partners and suppliers are a key part of effective reporting to track Scope 3 emissions, not just for data centres but also for the businesses that use them. With the incoming EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), this data sharing will prove more important than ever to gain a holistic overview of sustainability impacts along the entire value chain.  

The time for action is now 

If the data centre industry adopted science-based targets and actions as best practice, there could be a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of the digital infrastructure market. The ultimate goal should look beyond day-to-day operations to embedded actions that start from the moment that land is acquired. Spanning construction, materials, equipment, and operations, data centres need to make the site lifecycle as sustainable as possible, and measuring embedded carbon is key to tracking a project’s total impact. 

Anthea van Scherpenzeel
Anthea van Scherpenzeel
Senior Sustainability Manager at Colt DCS

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