A matter of urgency: What data centres can do to help with net zero

A matter of urgency: What data centres can do to help with net zero

Astrid Wynne, Head of Sustainability at Interact, discusses the looming climate change crisis and how data centres in particular can play their part in minimising environmental impact and get ahead of the curve. 

Evidence collated by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that global warming is likely to reach 1.5⁰C between 2030 and 2050 if it continues at the current rate. If we manage to significantly reduce emissions by that point, we have a chance of keeping long-term temperature rise within bearable limits. Achieving net zero by 2050 means the UK will have to reduce emissions by 68%, compared to 1990, in less than seven years. It will need the data centre sector’s help to achieve this. 

The UK has one of the most ambitious net zero plans worldwide and has been called to account to show how it will get there. An independent review of the government’s approach was published in late 2022, with the aim of ensuring it was ‘pro-business and pro-growth’.  

The effect of incremental changes

A 1.5⁰C temperature rise by the end of the century means that we are likely to lose 70% of our coral reefs, double our flood risk and have almost one-in-10 people worldwide exposed to extreme heatwaves at least once every 20 years. A total of 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates will be affected worldwide, disproportionately so in some regions. We will also see lower agricultural yields in tropical regions. 

If we have an increase of a further 0.5⁰C by the end of the century, the knock-on effect is disproportionately high. We expect to lose all coral reefs, see flood risk rise by a further 70% and have almost one-in-three people worldwide exposed to extreme heatwaves. Three-times the number of insects, twice the number of plants and vertebrates will be affected. Tropical yields will further decrease. 

Temperature rises above 2⁰C by the end of the century would mean a much higher chance of various ‘tipping points’ that would cause larger, more critical and irreversible change. Examples include losing the ice sheets, altering the major ocean currents and 20-25% of the Amazon rainforest (which risks the rest of it dying back).  

Without getting into an argument on the exact percentage of the UK’s energy used by data centres, let’s just say they are large electricity users. The sector is expected to grow by 500% globally by 2050. Choosing where to place data centres will have a high impact on future energy use of the UK as the digital sector grows. It also has the potential to support the UK’s net zero transition in a number of ways. 

Clean energy supply

To kick-start renewable energy supply, we need to create a reliable market alongside the technology. That is not always simple given that areas that can produce a large amount of wind and hydro power are a long distance from traditional data centre areas and other high energy users. A good example is Southern Scotland, where the energy is on average the greenest in the whole of the UK according to National Grid data. The issue is that the area – which also has the potential to develop green energy supply further through the development of offshore wind power – does not have enough customers for the high energy supply that are within reach. If data centres were willing to locate to the area, it would encourage renewable energy suppliers to invest at the same time.

Energy and carbon efficiency

Backups are also important when it comes to carbon efficiency. Data centres need to move away from diesel generators and into hydrogen when it becomes available at scale. They also need to be mindful about which parts of the world we are using for backups and how the data centres are built there. In April this year, my colleague Rich Kenny presented our research in this area at OCP Prague. The research modelled server and cooling efficiency for data centres across the world, highlighting that climate needs to be considered, alongside cooling system, the age and average utilisation of the servers, when creating efficient data centres. Considering age and utilisation of servers, building the cooling infrastructure around this and matching it to the global location is vital for overall efficiency of the sector. 

Reducing energy used by others

Over 99% of data centre energy usage becomes heat. Building data centres into local development plans can be extremely useful in reducing overall energy usage in the area. There are technical issues to overcome – upgrading the quality of heat leaving the building is one example of this. There are also economic challenges, because contracts need to be drawn up that account for heat transfer, backup and maintenance of the infrastructure. However, the potential for reducing the energy usage of district heating, fish farms, swimming pools and desalination plants is huge. 

What about the building?

Buildings decarbonisation is still a blocker to progress according to the latest Climate Change Coalition report. Concrete manufacture is one of the largest industrial greenhouse gas emitters worldwide, as is steel. There are less environmentally damaging versions of both materials, but other options should also be explored. Some data centres are looking at alternatives such as fire-retardant wood. Other solutions could include extending the life of buildings or combined use buildings for Edge and micro data centres. 

…and the rest?

Up to 80% of company emissions can be attributed to the supply chain. There are 15 categories in total which cover things like business travel, couriers, purchased goods and services and waste. Lack of data about emissions in their supply chains creates a challenge for accurately reporting emissions and taking action to reduce them. Suggested ways around this are publishing government-held data and/or government-backed forums for collaboration and cooperation across value chains to measure emissions. This would be great for data centre net zero plans, but it works two ways. As service suppliers, data centres form part of other companies’ supply chain. They will need to report accurate numbers on their energy usage if we are to achieve across-the-board change.  

A UK Green Taxonomy was announced in 2021. The aim is to create clarity for investors so they can compare environmental performance across companies. It will mean that companies will have to be transparent on energy, carbon and materials usage going forward and evidence any claims they make. Far from being a challenge, this is an opportunity for data centres and their service providers to get ahead of the curve. 

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