Can data centres be more sustainable than you think?

Ahead of the upcoming UN climate conference COP26, hosted in the UK, the expectations on businesses to be at the forefront of the net-zero transition is growing, and it’s critical time for those operating in the technology sector to not only lead by example but help their customers bring about positive change too. By Scott Balloch, Director of Energy and Sustainability at Colt Data Centre Services

Science-based targets

There are many factors that data centre companies need to take into consideration when mapping out initiatives and setting goals for their green vision.

On the one hand, planning data centre capacity is often difficult. As traditional planning cycles account for requirements that last around a decade, it makes it challenging to balance long-term goals given lightning-speed of technological innovation. Nevertheless, a greater emphasis on sustainable and social responsibilities associated with running scalable estates means efficiency gains at data centres are a top priority for operational management teams and data centre operators at large.

Furthermore, the processes of measuring carbon emissions produced by data centres might often be opaque and it can be difficult to collect tangible numbers. These challenges in monitoring and collecting information about the actual footprint can lead to making unrealistic or nonfactual corporate sustainability pledges.

With that being said, as part of the net-zero journey, businesses should aim to set science-based targets that are accredited and regarded as the industry standard. Indeed, to become a truly green organisation, they should be able to measure the actual carbon footprint as well as monitor the progress they're making towards those targets. The methodology should be designed to align with commonly agreed goals such as those from the Paris Climate Agreement. This approach prevents sustainability efforts from being purely a market positioning initiative and drive an authentic change within and outside the organisation.

Collective action

Championing climate initiatives within the organisation can have immense positive impact on the environment. However, as businesses operate within ecosystems with different stakeholders, suppliers and partners interacting on different levels, organisations are influenced by each other’s green policies and actions. Therefore, one of the main obstacles for companies with green ambitions is being reliant on these other organisations’ commitment to Environmental, Social and Governance environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) goals. For instance, a company might need to source parts, material, and labour from elsewhere. Business leaders would like to source this from organisations that are also driving a sustainability agenda so the carbon footprint of their supply chain is lower, but that requires other stakeholders to also make that decision and drive collective action.

Powering the cloud

Technology, and the data centre market in particular, has been seen as part of the climate problem due to its perceived high energy consumption. Especially with the mass move online caused by the pandemic, the demand for large-scale solutions, such as hyperscale data facilities, to support seamless remote working has surged. Some might say that the power usage these centres generate means it is not the most environmentally-friendly method.

However, data centres only store technology tools that otherwise would have been kept elsewhere. In other words, companies need physical space for their servers and cloud storage to run necessary applications such as internal drives and virtual communication. For example, many large corporations would require dozens of server rooms spread across different buildings to sustain their daily operations. This would potentially cause great harm to the environment, as many facilities wouldn't have been designed for the purpose, making them much less efficient and much less sustainable than one all-encompassing purpose-built site. These purpose-built sites are often designed to be much more sustainable and resource efficient

It is vital to understand that data centres are not an incremental source of power consumption. It's a solution focusing the needed power into a single building, rather than distributing it across a number of other sites. Creating such purpose-built facilities also increases the possibility of applying self-generation of renewable power.

The future is green

Although sustainability should be at the top of the agenda of every business - not only on Earth Day - this event should serve as a reminder to all forward-facing leaders that now is the time to take action. Creating an ecosystem that delivers responsible supply chains as well as implementing science-based methodology to meet green targets are the vital steps for the data centre industry to contribute to better, more sustainable future.

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