This article is the first of a series on data centres and sustainability, created by Submer and Plan A. Technology plays such a central role in our everyday lives, yet its impact on the planet receives very little coverage. With this series, we hope to shed light on the fastest-growing technologies of humankind’s potential for good and for harm.
Last 27th June, United Kingdom’s goal of net-zero carbon by 2050 became law. The decision – taken by former PM Theresa May as she was walking out the door – makes the United Kingdom the world’s first G7 country to establish this form of legally binding target. It is a historical milestone not just for the UK, but for the whole planet. But what does “net-zero carbon” mean? How is this goal achievable?
Net-zero carbon footprint refers to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal (see carbon offsetting) or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether. There are several ways to eliminate existing emissions and achieve carbon neutrality (forest carbon sinks, carbon credit trading – that will also be adopted by the UK). Businesses (included datacenters) now face the complex goal of achieving sustainability while keeping positive productivity. Technology can be of great help, allowing to achieve high efficiency and being eco-friendly at the same time.
In 2016, the signing of the Paris Agreement meant a significant step forward in dealing with GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance. The agreement has a long-term goal to keep the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above the pre-industrial levels and to limit the increase to 1.5°C to substantially reduce the risks and effects of climate change. As of March 2019, 195 members of UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) have signed the agreement, and 186 have become part of it.
Being green: a task and a right for (almost) everybody
It goes without saying that seeing nations adopting the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emission is a strong act of will towards a significant, concrete improvement of our present and future living conditions.
There is a growing public demand for a rapid transition to a zero-carbon economy, but this transition will only be possible if governments start to create programs and legislation that support that goal. Not all of them are doing it at the moment.
Global warming represents a major risk for nature, people and, ultimately, economy (U.S. financial regulator Rostin Behnam likened the financial risks from climate change to those caused by the mortgage meltdown that led to the financial crisis of 2008). That is why private companies as well need to their own part, adopting new sustainable strategies and technologies for their business, aiming at high efficiency while lowering consumption of resources (water, electricity, and other resources).
Nonetheless, not everybody is on the same page. There are those who raise doubts around the methods to be used to reach net-zero carbon emission, wondering if these strategies will actually slow climate change and if this transition to a zero-carbon economy should be complete, with the adoption of a 100%-renewable-energy policy or if it would make sense to take a more cautious approach, still relying in part on carbon emissions.
The role of data centres in climate change
In this scenario, datacenters (private and public) are undoubtedly a big part of the problem. But, without any contradiction, they can also be part of the solution.
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The global data centre market is expected to reach revenues of about $174 billion by 2023, according to experts’ forecast. The fast-paced growth of Deep Learning, Machine Learning, IoT, Smart City, IA, and blockchain (just to name a few of the trends that are powering the undergoing digital transformation) is responsible for the rapid expansion witnessed by datacenter and HPC. These new trends require the processing of large quantities of data, that translates into a necessity for greater computational capacity. Resulting in greater consumption of energy, which obviously is what makes datacentres a not so green industry, to say the least. Find below a depository of data centres across the world. As you can see, this is no small endeavour.
Just like the Industrial Revolution brought economic growth (with the United Kingdom leading the way), imposing though a heavy toll on the environment, the digital revolution we are experiencing today has radically improved our lives, with equally dramatic consequences on the environment. Even though data centres do not spew out black smoke or grind greasy cogs, the social and environmental impact of the data centre industry tends to be unnoticed or underestimated. Datacentres and cloud providers consume 6% of the global electricity (more than India) and generate 4% of the global CO2 emissions (more than 2 times commercial air travel).
By 2025, it is estimated that this industry will consume 20% of global electricity. Some encouraging initiatives are taking place indicating that creating environmentally sustainable data centre is not just some utopia or the dream of a few. Datacenters can actually change from a feared source of pollution, into energy contributors to surrounding communities. An example of this is in the case of EcoDatacentre. Big players are actively looking for new ways to make the data centre industry a sustainable one, pushing the envelope of green innovation. Though it must be said that the data centre ecosystem comprises of many smaller providers who, clearly, struggle to match the commitment to renewable energy and eco-friendly procedures, and this is not only because of lack of available resources.
There is a better way to do data
How has the datacenter industry reacted to this problem? So far, we’ve seen different attempts to minimise the impact on the environment by limiting the electricity consumption or by finding ways to use natural resources as a cooling system. Last year, Microsoft launched the Project Natick, where an eco-friendly datacenter was lowered into the sea of the Orkney Islands. The data centre’s structure even provides shelter for wildlife!
In recent years, many companies have started to look at cold-climate regions as an ideal setting for building their data centres. In a recent Submer’s webinar, Merima Dzanic of Danish Data Center Industry explained the digital revolution that is taking place in the Nordics and particularly in Denmark. The Nordics are likely to gain market share thanks to some key advantages such as abundant renewable energy, carbon neutrality, reliable power supply, low energy prices, political stability and faster time-to-market primarily due to ease of doing business.
However, moving data centres to the Nordics might be an option not for everyone. For example, there are companies that need to have their data close to their business and customers, or there are those that cannot consider renewable energy as a first choice due to the nature of their business. Latency problems might arise when a data centre is far from where it is needed. Finally, there are also those who are concerned by the impact on the environment and energy consumption provoked by a potentially massive migration of datacentres in those relatively contaminated (or almost uncontaminated) areas.
Making data more carbon efficient
In this scenario, the company Submer is an interesting case. By submerging servers into a proprietary, dielectric, synthetic fluid, they are able to reduce cooling needs and thus emissions and consumption. The heat dissipated is also reused in surrounding urban and industrial areas. The technology can be derived for high-performance computing (the computers you see in the movies). Recently, Submer launched a series of webinars to share knowledge and raise awareness on the role of datacenters and HPC in our society, an initiative we salute. Knowledge, information sharing and innovation will be our keys to the next level, not competition among like-minded innovators.
This article was written by Matteo Mezzanotte. It is the first of a series on data centres and sustainability, created by Submer and Plan A. Technology plays such a central role in our everyday lives, yet its impact on the planet receives very little coverage. With this series, we hope to shed light on the fastest-growing technologies of humankind’s potential for good and for harm.