Simon Yeoman, CEO at Fasthosts, discusses how businesses can ensure their cloud storage is more sustainable in an age of rising demand for data and AI.

With over half of all corporate data held in the cloud as of 2022, demand for cloud storage has never been higher. This has triggered extreme energy consumption throughout the data centre industry, leading to hefty greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Worryingly, the European Commission now estimates that by 2030, EU data centre energy use will increase from 2.7% to 3.2% of the Union’s total demand. This would put the industry’s emissions almost on par with pollution from the EU’s international aviation.

Despite this, it must be remembered that cloud storage is still far more sustainable than the alternatives. 

Why should we consider cloud storage to be sustainable?

It’s important to put the energy used by cloud storage into context and consider the savings it can make elsewhere. Thanks to file storage and sharing services, teams can collaborate and work wherever they are, removing the need for large offices and everyday commuting.

As a result, businesses can downsize their workspaces as well as reduce the environmental impact caused by employees travelling. In fact, it’s estimated that working from home four days a week can reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions by around 10%. 

In addition, cloud storage reduces reliance on physical, on-premises servers. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), having on-site servers or their own data centres can be expensive, whilst running and cooling the equipment requires a lot of energy, which means more CO2 emissions. 

Cloud servers, on the other hand, offer a more efficient alternative. Unlike on-premises servers that might only be used to a fraction of their capacity, cloud servers in data centres can be used much more effectively. They often operate at much higher capacities, thanks to virtualisation technology that allows a single physical server to act as multiple virtual ones. 

Each virtual server can be used by different businesses, meaning fewer physical units are needed overall. This means less energy is required to power and cool, leading to a reduction in overall emissions.

Furthermore, on-premises servers often have higher storage and computing capacity than needed just to handle occasional spikes in demand, which is an inefficient use of resources. Cloud data centres, by contrast, pool large amounts of equipment to manage these spikes more efficiently. 

In 2022, the average power usage effectiveness of data centres improved. This indicates that cloud providers are using energy more efficiently and helping companies reduce their carbon footprint with cloud storage.

A sustainable transition: three steps to create green cloud storage

Importantly, there are ways to further improve the sustainability of services like cloud storage, which could translate to energy savings of 30-50% through greening strategies. So, how can ordinary cloud storage be turned into green cloud storage? We believe there are three fundamental steps.

Firstly, businesses should carefully consider location. This means choosing a cloud storage provider that’s close to a power facility. This is because distance matters. If electricity travels a long way between generation and use, a proportion is lost. In addition, data centres located in cooler climates or underwater environments can cut down on the energy required for cooling.

Next, businesses should quiz green providers about what they’re doing to reduce their environmental impact. For example, powering their operations with wind, solar or biofuels minimises reliance on fossil fuels and so lowering GHG emissions. Some facilities will house large battery banks to store renewable energy and ensure a continuous, eco-friendly power supply.

Last but certainly not least, technology offers powerful ways to enhance the energy efficiency of cloud storage. Some providers have been investing in algorithms, software and hardware designed to optimise energy use. For example, introducing frequency scaling or AI and machine learning algorithms can significantly improve how data centres manage power consumption and cooling. 

For instance, Google’s use of its DeepMind AI has reduced its data centre cooling bill by 40% – a prime example of how intelligent systems can work towards greater sustainability. 

At a time when the world is warming up at an accelerating rate, selecting a cloud storage provider that demonstrates a clear commitment to sustainability can have a significant impact. In fact, major cloud providers like Google, Microsoft and Amazon have already taken steps to make their cloud services greener, such as by pledging to move to 100% renewable sources of energy.  

Cloud storage without the climate cost

The cloud’s impact on businesses is undeniable, but our digital growth risks an unsustainable future with serious environmental consequences. However, businesses shouldn’t have to choose between innovation and the planet.

The answer lies in green cloud storage. By embracing providers powered by renewable energy, efficient data centres, and innovative technologies, businesses can reap the cloud’s benefits without triggering a devastating energy tax. 

The time to act is now. Businesses have a responsibility to choose green cloud storage and be part of the solution, not the problem. By making the switch today, we can ensure the cloud remains a convenient sanctuary, not a climate change culprit.

  • Infrastructure & Cloud
  • Sustainability Technology

ESG data can not just measure and help improve organisations’ sustainability performance, but improve organisational efficiency and cut costs as well.

Caitlin Keam, Director of Product Management (ESG), at IFS explores how organisations can take the next step in committing to data transparency, prioritising accessibility, and embedding sustainability into the heart of their operations.

With a heightened global focus on sustainability practices, there is a real opportunity for data to help improve the operational efficiency of businesses across manufacturing, utilities, construction, and engineering. 

A December 2020 survey from NAVEX Global, found that about two-thirds of privately-owned companies have ESG initiatives in place. This is the latest in a series of signs that organisations are beginning to take more meaningful action around ESG. 

ESG data is more than just box-ticking

What may not be as well understood is that, in addition to being a green tick against regulatory compliance, ESG data can also provide a competitive edge in a competitive marketplace. 

However, this can often be hindered by mandatory reporting requirements and a box-ticking attitude. Metrics often aren’t fully understood, which holds organisations back from unlocking the real potential of their ESG data.

This data can go far beyond simply measuring carbon emissions, which is where the process begins and ends for many. It encompasses all business functions, from supply chain labour transparency to social metrics. It is also everywhere: from Excel spreadsheets and siloed, disconnected systems to disparate sites across the world. This makes it difficult for organisations to access their data in a timely way. By not fully understanding the value of their data and the many sources it comes from, it can hold businesses back from unlocking its real potential.

This is the true test for organisations. It isn’t about having a huge volume and range of ESG data to track and collect. Rather, it’s about rendering the information accessible, intelligible, and ultimately, impactful. 

ESG reporting, when fuelled by clear, comprehensive, and accurate datasets can have multi-faceted impacts, potentially influencing everything from day-to-day operational decisions to long-term strategic planning and global market trends.

Manufacturers, for instance, might leverage ESG data to understand where they can make changes within their processes to reduce energy use, while retailers might monitor their supply chains for opportunities for more ethical sourcing. 

The challenge, however, transcends mere data collection; it lies in transforming this data into actionable insights. Achieving this means promoting transparency and equipping all sectors of a business with an understandable and actionable sustainability framework, embedding ESG considerations into every decision-making process.

The data dilemma in ESG reporting

The journey to lucid ESG reporting is convoluted due to diverse methodologies and conflicting data sources. 

Companies grapple with simplifying data capture and enhancing accessibility. Complicating matters further is the issue of data transparency and trust. Some organisations are hesitant to share their ESG data, for fear of disseminating potential flaws in their reporting, while others may turn to consultants due to a lack of knowledge or confidence to get hold of accurate data on their own. The necessity for companies to own their reporting process is clear, avoiding reliance on estimated data and instead focusing on accurate, holistic information that leads to precise environmental impact assessments and strategic decisions.

Additionally, contemporary consumers are increasingly value-driven, often seeking detailed insights into a company’s ESG practices before patronage. 

Companies, therefore, must prioritise transparency in areas like carbon emissions and sustainable practices to meet these evolving expectations. For example, a software company that discloses accurate emissions data pertaining to product usage can foster deeper trust and satisfy the modern customer’s desire for transparency. 

Leveraging technology to navigate ESG complexity

So what’s the solution to all this? The emergence of cloud-based platforms that provide centralised data repositories for ESG data, is making it simpler for businesses across industries, including manufacturing, engineering and construction for example, to more easily access and manage data from across different departments within the business, as well as ensuring that it is consistent, accurate, and up to date.

Technology is also making it easier to connect and embed ESG data from various sources, including internal systems, external databases, and third-party vendors. This data harmonisation ensures that data is standardised and compatible, enabling meaningful analysis and reporting. This is key as it enables ESG data to be used to efficiently drive the core operations of the business.

Rather than having a dedicated sustainability team capture data separately, organisations need to embed sustainability measurements into existing processes. 

For instance, having finance teams capture consumption data at the source, alongside financial data, not only saves time but also increases efficiency. 

By capturing that data and sharing it more widely, it helps those responsible for setting and meeting ESG targets to create greater alignment on their broader organisational strategy, eliminating the isolation of data within a single team.

 Advanced analytics and ESG footprints 

By harnessing advanced analytics, businesses can gain a deeper understanding of their ESG footprint, helping them to not only meet regulatory standards but also drive innovative solutions that enhance sustainability while optimising costs. As the role of ESG continues to expand in business operations, AI will inevitably become an increasingly critical tool for gathering more accurate, consistent data.

Herein lies the opportunity for businesses: by using ESG data insights, they can enhance their operations by identifying opportunities to upgrade existing infrastructure and tools to lower emission alternatives, reducing costs and creating better outcomes. 

For example, by reducing the energy consumption of machines in the manufacturing space, or reducing waste production, that manufacturer can in turn, lower its overall operational costs and improve its profit margins, while also having a more positive impact on the environment. The trigger point for these reductions often lies in the operational data.

Final thoughts

While the ESG landscape is undeniably complex, it offers fertile ground for innovation and leadership in sustainability. 

However, this is only possible by steering the narrative from mere reporting to being part of the solution for empowering businesses to take charge of their ESG data and using it to drive their business forward. 

By working with partners and industry experts, organisations can take the next step in committing to data transparency, prioritising accessibility, and embedding sustainability into the heart of their operations. With mandated reporting standards such as CSRD and GRI coming down the line, businesses can use this as an opportunity to unlock the transformative power of their ESG data, paving the way for a more sustainable and profitable future.

  • Sustainability Technology

The major infrastructure project points to a new direction for Microsoft’s data centre ambitions in Africa.

Microsoft is partnering with UAE-based AI firm G42 on a major new data centre project in Kenya. The companies announced this week that they have committed to investing $1 billion in Kenya to support the nation’s digital economy and digital infrastructure. Building a “state of the art green data centre” is part of that package. Micsrofot identified the project as “one of the Kenyan investment priorities,” in a press release

The US tech giant has said the data centre will support the expansion of its cloud computing platform in East Africa. Microsoft invested $1.5 billion into the Abu Dhabi-based G42 in April in order to support the firm’s efforts to train an open-source large-language AI model in both Swahili and English.

Pivoting to Kenya (and away from Nigeria) 

So far, Microsoft’s data centre footprint in Africa has been restricted to two sites in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. The country will likely account for the majority of the $5 billion investment expected to enter the Africa data centre market by 2026. It already hosts the majority of the region’s data centre capacity. 

Looking to expand northwards into Sub-Saharan Africa, Microsoft initially looked as though it was gearing up to use Nigeria as its base in the region. However, last month, the company announced plans to shut down its Africa development centre located in Lagos, putting 200 people out of work

Now, it appears Microsoft is pivoting from Nigeria towards Kenya. The new facility, built by G42, will serve as the hub for Microsoft Azure in a new East Africa Cloud Region. Microsoft has announced plans for the site to come online in the next two years.

Additionally, Microsoft has pledged to bring last-mile wireless internet access to 20 million people in Kenya, and 50 million people across East Africa, by the end of 2025. The opening of an East Africa Innovation Lab in Kenya was also announced, and will presumably replace the one recently closed in Nigeria. 

Geothermal power in East Africa 

Beyond a statement that “Organisational and workforce adjustments are a necessary and regular part of managing our business,” Microsoft made little by way of explanation as to why it was shuttering its Nigerian business shortly before expanding in Kenya. However, one of the most likely reasons is the company’s ongoing struggle to reconcile its green ambitions with the growing demand for AI infrastructure. 

In Microsoft’s 2024 sustainability report, President Brad Smith and Chief Sustainability Officer Melanie Nakagawa highlighted the challenges the company faced due to the building of more datacenters and the associated embodied carbon in building materials, as well as hardware components such as semiconductors, servers, and racks. 

WIth AI-infrastructure threatening Microsoft’s ambitions to become carbon neutral by 2030, the company may be looking for ways to cut the emissions in its infrastructure by building as green as possible. 

Nigeria, which has a power mix dominated by natural gas and biofuels, is nowhere near as renewables-focused compared with Kenya. By comparison, Kenya sources up to 91% of its energy from renewables. Its mix is 47% geothermal, 30% hydro, 12% wind and 2% solar. The country hopes to transition fully to renewables by the end of the decade. This is largely thanks to geothermal, which reportedly has the potential to increase capacity as high as 10,000MW, far exceeding peak demand in Kenya currently, which is about 2,000MW.

Abundant geothermal power undoubtedly played a role in Microsoft’s decision to refocus its East-African ambitions on Kenya. Microsoft claims the new data centre campus in Olkaria, Kenya, will run entirely on renewable geothermal energy. It will also be designed with state-of-the-art water conservation technology—another area where the company admitted it was struggling to meet sustainability targets in its report. 

  • Infrastructure & Cloud
  • Sustainability Technology

Rising data centre demand as a result of AI adoption has spiked Microsoft’s carbon emissions by almost 30% since 2020.

Ahead of the company’s 2024 sustainability report, Brad Smith, Vice Chair and President; and Melanie Nakagawa, Chief Sustainability Officer at Microsoft, highlighted some of the ways in which the company is on track to achieve its sustainability commitments. However, they also flagged a troubling spike in the company’s aggregate emissions. 

Despite cutting Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 6.3% in 2023 (compared to a 2020 baseline), the company’s Scope 3 emissions ballooned. Microsoft’s indirect emissions increased by 30.9% between 2020 and last year. As a result, the company’s emissions in aggregate rose by over 29% during the same period. A potentially sour note for a company that tends to pride itself on leading the pack for sustainable tech. 

Four years ago, Microsoft committed to becoming carbon negative, water positive, zero waste, and protecting more land than the company uses by 2030. 

Smith and Nakagawa stress that, despite radical, industry-disrupting changes, Microsoft remains “resolute in our commitment to meet our climate goals and to empower others with the technology needed to build a more sustainable future.” They highlighted the progress made by Microsoft over the past four years, particularly in light of the “sobering” results of the Dubai COP28. “During the past four years, we have overcome multiple bottlenecks and have accelerated progress in meaningful ways.” 

However, despite being “on track in several areas” to meet the company’s 2030 commitments, Microsoft is also falling behind elsewhere. Specifically, Smith and Nakagawa draw attention to the need for Microsoft toreduceScope 3 emissions in its supply chain, as well as cut down on water usage in its data centres. 

Carbon reduction and Scope 3 emissions 

Carbon reduction, especially related to Scope 3 emissions, is a major area of concern for Microsoft’s sustainability goals. 

Microsoft’s report attributes the rise in its Scope 3 emissions to the building of more datacenters and the associated embodied carbon in building materials, as well as hardware components such as semiconductors, servers, and racks. 

AI is undermining Microsoft’s ESG targets 

Mass adoption of generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools is fueling a data centre boom to rival that of the cloud revolution. Growth in AI and machine learning investment is expected (somewhat conservatively) to drive more than 300% growth in global data centre capacity over the next decade. Already this year OpenAI and Microsoft were rumoured to be planning a 5GW, $100 billion data centre—the largest in history—to support the next generation of AI. 

In response to the need to continue growing its data centre footprint while also developing greener concrete, steel, fuels, and chips, Microsoft has launched “a company-wide initiative to identify and develop the added measures we’ll need to reduce our Scope 3 emissions.” 

Smith and Nakagawa add that: “Leaders in every area of the company have stepped up to sponsor and drive this work. This led to the development of more than 80 discrete and significant measures that will help us reduce these emissions – including a new requirement for select scale, high-volume suppliers to use 100% carbon-free electricity for Microsoft delivered goods and services by 2030.”

How Microsoft plans to get back on track

The five pillars of Microsoft’s initiative will be: 

  1. Improving measurement by harnessing the power of digital technology to garner better insight and action
  2. Increasing efficiency by applying datacenter innovations that improve efficiency as quickly as possible
  3. Forging partnerships to accelerate technology breakthroughs through our investments and AI capabilities, including for greener steel, concrete, and fuels
  4. Building markets by using our purchasing power to accelerate market demand for these types of breakthroughs
  5. Advocating for public policy changes that will accelerate climate advances

Despite being largely responsible for the growth in its data centre infrastructure, Microsoft is also confident that AI will have a role to play in reducing emissions as well as increasing them. “New technologies, including generative AI, hold promise for new innovations that can help address the climate crisis,” write Smith and Nakagawa.

  • Data & AI
  • Sustainability Technology

New advancements in Enhanced Geothermal Systems are turning the technology into a viable addition to wind and solar for renewable energy.

Geothermal energy has long been among the most niche forms of renewable energy generation. Wind and sunlight affect (almost) every part of the globe. Geothermal energy, by contrast, has only been able to be captured in volcanic regions like Iceland, where boiling water rises through the earth to the surface. 

Until now, that is. New technologies and techniques developed over the past decade are transcending the traditional limitation of geothermal power generation. A new clutch of companies and government projects are making the next generation of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) look like a viable source of renewable energy at a time when the green transition is in need of new ways to cut down on fossil fuels.  

A rocky road for EGS

For nearly 50 years, the EGS projects have been working on a way to convert low permeability, hot formations into economically viable geothermal reservoirs. Governments in the US and Japan, among others, have invested significantly into EGS projects. However, most projects have had mixed results. 

Some projects failed to produce significantly higher energy yields. Others caused bigger problems. In 2017, an EGS plant in South Korea had to close down after likely causing a 5.5 magnitude earthquake as a result of fracking too close to a tectonic fault.

The most successful EGS projects have depended on expanding and stimulating large preexisting faults in the rock. This approach is not scalable, explains Mark McClure, founder of ResFrac, because “it relies on finding large faults in the subsurface.” While we aren’t exploiting anywhere near the number of usable faults, the number of fractures to exploit are finite, and finding them isn’t always easy. Despite companies in Germany like Herrenknecht developing novel solutions like “thumper trucks” that could drive around urban areas looking for geothermal faults, most experts agree the solution is finding ways to create new fault lines in the earth to access water warmed by the Earth’s core.  

Fervo’s Project Red and the next steps for geothermal  

In late April, Turboden, a company that makes advanced turbines for capturing geothermal energy, announced a new partnership with Fervo Energy

For Fervo, the partnership is part of the natural progression of a project that came online in November of 2023, but has been in the works for years. 

Located in the heart of the Nevada desert, Project Red is a new kind of geothermal power plant, one which uses a new approach to dramatically increase the amount of hot water and steam it can access in an area without naturally-occurring hot springs from volcanic activity.  

Fervo’s Project Red location in Nevada has seen remarkable success by harnessing techniques borrowed from the oil sector. By creating a 3000 ft lateral (sideways) extension to the bottom, the wells achieved by far the highest circulation rates ever circulated between EGS wells.

Drilling and fracking methods have grown increasingly sophisticated since the 2010s, thanks to the boom in oil and gas extraction from shale. The EGS sector has embraced these methods, and as a result, “the techniques that are central to EGS were perfected and brought down significantly in cost,” Wilson Ricks, an energy systems researcher at Princeton University told Knowable Magazine.

Nevertheless, Project Red is a relatively small demonstration of EGS’ potential. The station draws enough steam up from the earth to generate 3.5 megawatts of power. That’s enough to power more than 2,500 homes and more than any other EGS plant today. Nevertheless, it’s significantly smaller than nuclear or coal power plants can generate, and quite a bit less than solar, wind, and traditional geothermal sources. 

Now, however, Fervo plans to partner with companies like Turboden to rapidly scale up its technology. 

Scaling up Project Red

Situated in southwest Utah, Cape Station is positioned to redefine geothermal energy production with an anticipated total project capacity of approximately 400 MW. If successful, Fervo has claimed the project will represent a “transformative leap towards carbon-free energy solutions.”

The project will begin with an initial 90 MW phase. This includes the installation of three generators with six ORC turbines manufactured by Turboden.

“The success of Cape Station will not only validate the efficacy of EGS technology but also unlock vast potential for future geothermal power projects across the United States,” said the company in a statement.
One 2019 report projected that advances in EGS could result in geothermal power providing about 60 gigawatts of installed capacity to the US grid by 2050. That would account for 8.5% of the country’s electricity. Not only would this be more than 20 times the geothermal capacity of the US today, but the ability to plug up geothermal reservoirs and extract energy when needed could be used to complement more sizable but capricious wind and solar power. It’s just one more piece of the green transition puzzle.

  • Infrastructure & Cloud
  • Sustainability Technology

Larger drones than ever are being cleared to operate outside the field of vision of human overseers in autonomous swarms.

Swarms of autonomous drones could be changing the face of agriculture in the US and beyond. In a landmark ruling, the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently made an exemption to existing drone operation rules. The exemption allows Texan drone manufacturer Hylio to let a single pilot simultaneously fly up to three 165-pound AG-230 drones. Hylio’s pilots have clearance to fly multiple heavy drones beyond lone of sight, and can do so at night. The decision has been heralded as a major step forwards in industrial drone deployment.  

Industry experts believe this ruling could be a pivotal step in paving the way for “drone swarm farming”. While the ruling currently just applies to Hylio, it could soon be extended to the rest of the agri-drone industry. If so, it could put the technology competitive with traditional spraying and planting methods. 

While the FAA’s permission currently extends solely to Hylio pilots, the FAA is expected to generalise its approval through a “summary grant.”

“It’s definitely going to increase adoption of drones because you can’t just write drones off as cool for spot-spray,” says Arthur Erickson, Hylio CEO. “Now they’re a mainstay for farmers, even large row crop farmers.”

Hylio’s exemption from the FAA could be a pivotal step towards industrial scale “drone swarm farming”

Drone demand soars in the agricultural sector

The agricultural drone market was worth about $1.85 billion in 2022. While drones used primarily to spray crops with pesticide and fertiliser have been met with some enthusiasm, FAA regulations have placed significant limitations on the scale and degree of autonomy with which drones can work in agriculture. 

Weight restrictions have, until now, limited drones flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to 55 lbs(24.9kg). Also, the ratio of drones to pilots has been limited to 1:1. Technological limitations and regulatory guidelines have, therefore, allowed traditional agricultural methods to remain more effective. This could all be about to change, however. 

Erickson, in a recent interview, stressed the transformative impact of the FAA’s ruling on autonomous agriculture. “Swarming drones over 55 pounds has long been the desperately sought Holy Grail in the agricultural industry,” he explained.  

Growth in drone services-related revenue will likely stem from the rising adoption of drones in agriculture. In addition to the drones themselves, this will also necessicte a mixture of services. These could include drone operation, data analysis, customisation, and regulatory compliance assistance. 

The hardware segment dominated the market with a revenue share of about 51%. While hardware is expected to grow significantly over the coming decade, the software and especially services portion of the market is expected to register a significant CAGR over the forecast period.

Most farmers lack the necessary expertise to fully harness drone technology’s potential, which will boost demand for specialised services to enable effective drone utilisation and data interpretation. By 2030, the market for agricultural drones is predicted to exceed $10 billion. 

Ag-drones are paving the way for autonomous swarms in other sectors

If successful, Erickson argues that autonomous drone swarms in the agricultural sector could pave the way for their adoption in other industries. The agricultural sector is a relatively low-risk environment, with relatively little scope for injury in the event of an accident or error. As a result, Erickson argues that it makes an ideal testing ground for refining sensitive avoidance systems essential for the safe operation of autonomous drones. 

This could then pave the way for the broader adoption of drone swarms in other industrial sectors. Assuming they are proven safe and effective in a controlled environment like agriculture. 

However, manned crop spraying organisation, the National Agriculture Aviation Association, has raised concerns over the FAA’s ruling. The NAAA published an open letter raising safety concerns for manned crop-duster pilots. “UAS [unmanned aerial systems] performing the same mission in the same airspace present a significant hazard [to manned aeroplanes], particularly during seasonally busy application windows,” they warn.

  • Infrastructure & Cloud
  • Sustainability Technology

The UPS systems supporting data centres could be used to add resilience to local power grids during the transition to renewable energy.

When it comes to the worldwide green energy transition, data centres are certainly part of the problem. However, they could also be a part of the solution.

Part of the problem

Data centres have attracted their share of controversy and negative attention for their power consumption. 

Large data centres place enormous pressure on regional power grids. This has already driven some regional and national governments to freeze or outright ban construction. For example, the Irish government’s ban on connecting new data centres to Dublin’s electricity grid won’t end until 2028. Singapore and the Netherlands have also legislated to pause data centre construction. Both cited concerns over sustainability and the toll that multi-megawatt facilities take on their power grids. 

Data centres were early adopters of green energy, and have been drivers of sustainable engineering practices for over a decade. The “green” data centre market was worth $49.2 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $140.3 billion by 2026. However, the overall consumption of the industry is still rising. It’s also expected to rise a great deal more, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI). 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that data centres, which consumed 460TWh in 2022, could use more than 1,000TWh by 2026. Responsibility for this explosion of demand can be largely laid at the feet of the ongoing AI boom. 

High intensity workloads like artificial intelligence are accelerating the growth of data centre power demand, and the world may not be able to keep up. This is especially problematic as the global drive towards a green energy transition picks up steam.

“We have many grids around the world that cannot handle these AI [driven] workloads,” Hiral Patel, head of sustainable and thematic research at Barclays, said in an interview with the Financial Times. Going forward, she added that “data centre operators and tech companies will have to play a more active role in the grid.”

Power grids in crisis

One of the main problems faced by governments trying to restructure their energy mix is intermittent power generation. Wind and solar power can create abundant, cheap electricity. Not only that, but manufacturing wind and solar infrastructure is getting quicker and cheaper. As a result, large-scale engineering projects are increasingly putting more wind and solar energy into energy grids. 

However, there’s a problem with these methods of electricity generation. Essentially, when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun goes down (or behind a cloud), the power turns off. Battery technology also hasn’t evolved to a point where it’s practical (or possible, really) to store enough energy to tide the grid over when solar and wind fall short.

Currently, natural gas, coal, and other fossil fuels are used as a stopgap. These fuels are used to support energy grids when demand outstrips what renewables can supply. Nuclear is increasingly recognised as the best, cleanest source of consistent complementary power to support intermittent renewables. However, nuclear infrastructure takes a long time to build. Not only this, but regulation moves slowly. Most debilitatingly, nuclear power is still lumbered with an image problem—something the fossil fuel industry has worked hard to stoke over the past several decades. 

Add an unsteady energy transition to the fact that the power grids in many developed and developing nations are ageing, poorly maintained, and overloaded, and you have a  

In the meantime, data centres could offer part of the solution to power grids that lack resilience. 

Data centres must take on “a more active role in the grid”

All data centres have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) of some sort. All critical infrastructure does, from hospitals to government buildings. It’s a fancy term for a backup generator. 

If the grid fails, the UPS kicks in and can keep the lights (and servers) on until service is resumed. Data centre UPS systems are of special interest here because of the sheer volume of energy they can provide. 

These facilities are equipped with a very large array of either lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries. This array will be sized to the IT load of the data centre, meaning a 500 MW facility is equipped with enough batteries to power your average town—for a while at least. Most data centres aren’t that big, but there are a lot of them. 

Some experts argue that there are enough data centres (especially big ones) with enough power constantly being stored in high battery arrays that they have the capacity to return power to the grid, sharing the load when the system as a whole comes under strain. This substantial energy storage capacity is often underutilised. 

“As the transition to renewable energy accelerates, maintaining a stable grid is paramount. Data centre operators can have a crucial role to play in grid balancing,” argues Michael Sagar of lead-acid battery manufacturer EnerSys. By feeding power back into the grid to support it in moments of overwhelming demand, he explains that “data centres can contribute to grid stability and potentially generate additional revenue.”

  • Infrastructure & Cloud
  • Sustainability Technology

The e-waste crisis continues to be the biggest obstacle to the development of a circular economy, and tackling the problem requires multiple different approaches.

Click here to read Part One of our series on e-waste, where we contextualise the growing crisis. You can also click here for Part Two, where we examine the environmental, human, and economic cost of e-waste. 

The global e-waste crisis generates millions of tonnes of discarded smartphones, TVs, servers, and other electronics every year. Just 17.4% of the e-waste stream is collected and properly recycled. The resulting consequences for humanity, our planet, and the economy are becoming increasingly severe. 

In the previous parts of this series, we examined why e-waste is such a large and thorny problem. We looked at its environmental impact, and the ways in which it harms both people and our planet. We also examined the economic waste that stems from improperly disposing of broken electronics. The practice, the WEO finds, results in the loss of billions of dollars in unreclaimed rare earth metals every year. 

In many ways, e-waste is another symptom of capitalistic overconsumption. Electronics are being designed and sold increasingly as cheap and disposable. This, combined with a failure on behalf of governments to regulate corporate activity are driving huge growth in e-waste. The problem is not insurmountable. However, much like climate change, there is no single solution to the e-waste crisis. 

E-waste: the big, obvious solutions 

Regulation of manufacturers to ensure longer product lifespans, more rigorous requirements for recycling programs, and efforts to tackle corruption and human rights abuses in the supply chain are all vital steps towards overcoming this problem. 

Barbara Metz, Executive Director or Environmental Action German, argues that “Producers of electronics must bear more responsibility for the environmental problems caused by their products.” She adds that the “financial burden” faced by electronics producers generating e-waste is minimal. Because such a small amount of e-waste ever ends up back in a recycling plant for organisations to pay to recycle, manufactuers rarely pay to have them processed. “This must end now,” she says. Electronics manufacturers should be required to participate in e-waste return and recycling networks. She adds that that collection and reuse targets must become legally binding. Producers offering short-lived and poorly repairable equipment should also bear higher costs.” 

Regulators in the EU are making progess. Legislation like the right to repair is lengthening the lifespans of devices. However, governments and companies outside the EU must also act to effect lasting e-waste reduction. This is especially true in low-income areas of the world where a large amount e-waste ends up.

There are also some interesting technological developments that could work alongside regulatory and consumption-reduction efforts to bring the e-waste stream under control. 

Changing our approach to technology ownership could be a valuable first step, argue Guy Ryder and Zhao Houlin of the UN and ITU, respectively. Device-as-a-service business models present one potential avenue. “This is an extension of current leasing models, in which consumers can access the latest technology without high up-front costs,” they write. “With new ownership models, the manufacturer has an incentive to ensure that all resources are used optimally over a device’s lifecycle.” 

Technology as part of the solution 

Solving the e-waste problem in an increasingly technology-dependent world is a complex and challenging prospect. 

However, while structural and regulatory changes to electronics design, consumption, and disposal are at the core of the solution, there are some interesting technological developments that also promise to help tackle the crisis. These discoveries and developments range from the exceedingly high-tech to the shockingly simple. 

Biodegradable circuits 

One way to reduce the amount of electronics in landfills is to eliminate the need to recycle them. One reason why e-waste is such a pernicious issue is the complexity in separating useful and useless parts of each device. Each device contains some materials that are banal but unrecyclable. Others are actively toxic, and some can only be recycled once separated from their surrounding components. Lastly, there are others that are immensely valuable but very hard to recover. It’s a complicated, tangled mess.

One team of researchers at North Carolina State University is taking a novel approach to the problem. The team is tackling the issue of e-waste by developing devices that are “simultaneously recyclable and biodegradable.” 

The result of their experiments is an electronic patch made largely of a renewable biomaterial that can be composted. The electrical circuits are made from silver nanowires that can be reclaimed as the rest of the patch biodegrades. 

Yong Zhu, a professor and one of the device’s developers, said in an interview that “The electronic patch can, after further development, be used for a wide range of applications, such as human health monitoring, electronic textiles, sports performance monitoring, soft robotics, prosthetics, and human–machine interfaces.”

Robotic recycling 

One of the most detrimental effects of e-waste is on the health of people exposed to recycling operations. 

E-waste typically contains multiple hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, and cadmium. These are not only environmentally devastating, but have grave health consequences for those responsible for recycling them. Improper e-waste “recycling” practices have been linked to serious health issues. These issues affect both in those who work in these facilities and unborn generations. 

Robots are used throughout just about every industry to increase productivity and safety. As such, they are a natural fit for the e-waste recycling process. Intelligent robotics are increasingly able to separate types of material, isolate hazardous waste, and sort through e-waste without risking a human’s health. The issue is that it remains legal and cheaper to ship e-waste from producer regions like Europe and North America to places like Ghana (which also produce significant amounts of e-waste domestically) than to build the necessary infrastructure. 

The countries that are home to the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers need to take responsibility for modernising their e-waste recycling infrastructure. Not only this, but they have a moral and pragmatic imperative to support the modernisation of e-waste recycling capabilities in countries that both bear the brunt of the e-waste crisis and represent some electronics manufacturers’ fastest-growing markets. 

Vegemite? 

In Australia, a recent discovery could provide a refreshingly affordable, low-tech solution of plastic pollution and e-waste. A team of scientists have started using yeast for its properties as a “biosorbent”. Specificallty, they are using spent brewer’s yeast—also a key ingredient in Vegemite and Marmite.

“In order to achieve a selective metal recovery, we investigated spent brewer’s yeast as an effective and environmentally friendly biosorbent,” said Dr Klemens Kremser who helped conduct the study. The scientists used spent brewing yeast to separate aluminium, copper and zinc by means of adsorption. The yeast was also reused up to five times, separating additional types of metal from samples of e-waste. 

Using yeast to more effectively separate trace rare earth metals from e-waste, Klemser adds, “reduces the need of primary resources, thus helping to reduce the environmental impact of improper e-waste recycling.” 

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The e-waste crisis continues to be the biggest obstacle to the development of a circular economy, and we are only just beginning to feel the cost of inaction.

CONTINUED FROM PART ONE, in which we contextualise the scope of the growing e-waste crisis.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is the world’s fastest-growing hazardous waste stream. Over 61 million tonnes of e-waste were generated worldwide last year. By the end of the decade, continued consumption is projected to generate to more than 74 million tonnes

This growing avalanche of discarded smart phones, computers, televisions, and other electronics presents a very real environmental, human, and economic danger if not handled correctly. Right now, the vast majority of e-waste is disposed of improperly. Not only this, but the consequences of improper disposal are multifaceted and devastating. The release of toxic pollutants into the environment and human populations have harrowing consequences. Not only this, but improper e-wast disposal also causes the loss of billions of dollars in unreclaimed rare earth metals. 

As part of our ongoing series on e-waste, we’ll explore the environmental, human, and economic cost of the crisis. 

The environmental cost of the e-waste crisis

According to a WHO study, just 17.4% of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated in 2019 was collected with the intention of being recycled. Due to corruption, lax regulations, and other factors, even less e-waste even made it to the recycling plant. 

Even the materials that are classified as having been recycled may end up contributing more to emissions than those headed straight for the landfill. Notorious “recycling” operations like Agbogbloshie in Ghana incinerate e-waste in order to recover raw materials using open fires. These open air fires are used to strip insulation material from copper wire to recover the “recycled” metal. They are also used to burn away the rubber on tires to recover trace quantities of steel. 

Burning or otherwise improperly disposing of e-waste can release “as many as 1000 different chemical substances” into the environment, according to the WHO. In 2020, e-waste disposal was responsible for the release of 580 million tonnes of carbon emissions. The problem is more involved than simple carbon emissions, however. 

Increasing consumption of electronic devices and increasing generation of e-waste depletes valuable resources (such as lithium, palladium, and copper), escalates energy demand, and inflicts environmental harm during raw material extraction. Raw earth materials that are improperly recycled can emit greenhouse gases and pollutants, but those that make their way to landfills also add heavy metals to the ground and water supply over time. 

The human cost of e-waste 

The long-term contributions of e-waste to our environmental collapse are clear. More importantly, however, there is also an unconscionable human price being paid right now. 

The improper disposal of e-waste is in of itself a multi-billion dollar industry. This industry predominantly employs people in the developing world. The WHO has identified some of these practices as including dumping e-waste on land or in water bodies, landfilling it along with regular waste, open burning it, breaking down devices in acid baths, stripping and shredding plastic coatings, and the manual disassembly of equipment. 

All of these activities obviously harm the environment. However, they are also highlighted by the WHO as being hazardous to the people who perform them. “They release toxic pollutants, contaminating the air, soil, dust, and water at recycling sites and in neighbouring communities,” notes the WHO report. It is added that pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable. This is due to their unique pathways of exposure and their developmental status to toxins and heavy metals like lead. 

E-waste exposure has been linked to adverse neonatal outcomes, as well as neurodevelopment, learning and behavioural issues. In later life, prolonged exposure to e-waste recycling and disposal has been tied to reduced lung and respiratory function. Incidences of asthma also increase across the board with prolonged exposure.

The economic cost of e-waste 

Humanity suffers incalculable losses every year due to the holistic damage of the climate crisis. It is a price our species will likely continue to pay for decades, if not centuries. The damage caused by the e-waste crisis is not solely dealt to the environment or population health, however. The data suggests that our current damaging and unsustainable approach isn’t even cost effective. 

Most electronics contain scarce, valuable metals. It’s true that each individual smartphone, server, hearing aid, or smart toaster might only contain a few milligrams of gold, silver, and platinum. However, in aggregate, the problem really starts to take shape. 

It’s estimated that the global e-waste stream contains $62.5 billion worth of recoverable materials annually. The majority of these materials are improperly disposed of, unsustainably recovered, or simply buried in a landfill. For context, this is three times more value than is generated each year by all the world’s silver mines. 

As argued by Guy Ryder, Under-Secretary-General for Policy at the UN, and Zhao Houlin, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, the e-waste crisis represents “a golden opportunity.” 

“More than 120 countries have an annual GDP lower than the value of our growing pile of global e-waste. By harvesting this valuable resource, we will generate substantially less CO2 emissions when compared to mining the earth’s crust for fresh minerals. It makes sense too – there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore,”they note

CONTINUES IN PART THREE. 

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Solving the e-waste crisis in an increasingly technology-dependent world is a complex and challenging problem with no easy answers.

Electronic waste (or e-waste) is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world. 

In 2019, the World Health Organisation estimated that more than 53 million tonnes of e-waste were produced globally. 

Worldwide lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic drove work, education, and social interaction online in 2020. This further intensified the problem. Used to bridge the gaps created by the lockdown, the pandemic sparked a jump in e-waste. Dubbed “a ticking time bomb” by researchers at UCL, this huge growth in devices is poised to further accelerate the crisis.   

Solving this problem in an increasingly technology-dependent world is a complex and challenging prospect. There are no easy answers. 

E-waste out of control

E-waste is a bigger problem now than it has ever been. Around the world, just 17.4% of discarded electronics are collected and properly recycled each year. 

“Our electronics consumption keeps increasing without any consideration for our planet’s capacity. E-waste is piling up – not being reused, not being repaired,” says Fanny Rateau, Programme Manager at the European Environmental Bureau’s (EEB) Environmental Coalition on Standards. According to data gathered by the EEB, the European Union (which has some of the stricter regulatory frameworks related to e-waste in the world) fails to collect more than half the e-waste it produces each year. 

Fynn Hauschke, an EEB policy officer for circular economy and waste, adds that “Almost every EU Member State fails to reach e-waste collection targets,” which causes “considerable environmental impacts and lost opportunities for reuse and recycling.” 

In the UK, a report from 2020 by the EAC found that the average household had 20 unused electronic items at home. It also highlighted the growth of “disposable” electronics like single use vapes as a “huge and growing stream of hard-to-recycle waste.” 

E-waste is not an individual issue

Many e-waste reports tend to frame the issue in terms of the individual. In an article for the Journal of Cleaner Production, for example, authors Md Tasbirul Islam et al argue as much. “E-waste often ends up in landfill due to improper disposal of e-waste with household waste by consumers,” they observe. 

It’s true that improper disposal of electronics, as well as consumer buying habits focused on owning current generation devices are, on the face of it, responsible for the creation of e-waste.  However, the rhetoric bears the hauntological stamp of carbon footprint marketing campaigns championed by the oil and gas industry in the 2000s. Corporate (and government) interests have a proven track record of shifting culpability onto the consumer to conceal their role in unsustainable practices. 

For example, reports often frame the amounts of e-waste generated in terms of kilos per capita. In Europe last year, the EEB calculated that the biggest consumers of electrical and electronic equipment per inhabitant were the Netherlands (35.1 kg), Germany (31.3 kg), Denmark (30.7 kg), France (30.5 kg) and Belgium (29.2 kg). At first glance, it might seem as though the e-waste crisis is a product of consumer culture, even negligence.  

The big three e-waste drivers 

Dig a little deeper, however, and a more troubling picture begins to emerge. It quickly becomes apparent that consumers “improperly disposing” of their electronics are caught between much larger forces. 

These forces include governments failing to set up reliable, effective systems for recycling, repairing, and safely disposing of electronics. Additionally, the increasingly short lifespans of consumer goods; and the worldwide campaign by corporations against the repairability of their products are also driving the worsening e-waste crisis. 

Government inaction undercuts recycling efforts 

In the UK, the authors of the recent e-waste audit said they were “disappointed” that, while the UK government accepted 22 out of 27 of their recommendations. They added that “the measures on which the government is currently consulting do not appear to implement any of them.” 

Hauschke argues that “there is an urgent need for more consumer-friendly separate collection systems.” The EEB report advises the European Commission to “rapidly overhaul” the current directives governing e-waste disposal. Current gaps in data collection point to e-waste still being illegally disposed of as residual waste or illegal exports. 

Planned and negligent obsolescence. 

Another reason that e-waste is growing is that devices today are manufactured more cheaply with less emphasis on longevity. Multiple studies have identified that the lifespans of electronic devices are getting shorter. In 2015, a report commissioned by the German environment agency found that the proportion of all units sold to replace a defective appliance grew from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012. The report’s authors deemed this a “remarkable” increase. 

In 2020, a European Environment Agency report found something similar. Electronics like smartphones, televisions, washing machines and vacuum cleaners they studied had shorter lifespans than expected. On average these devices worked for at least 2.3 years less than their “designed or desired lifetimes.”

“Producers of electronics must bear more responsibility for the environmental problems caused by their products,” argues Barbara Metz, Executive Director of Environmental Action Germany. “Producers offering short-lived and poorly repairable equipment should also bear higher costs.” 

Fight for your right to repair 

The issue of repairability dovetails with this issue. Last year, landmark legislation in the EU granted consumers the “right to repair” their consumer goods

“Discarded products are often viable goods that can be repaired but are often tossed prematurely,” notes the EU commission. The commision adds that the premature disposal of goods like washing machines and televisions results in massive amounts of waste. This improper disposal causes 261 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU every year.

Right to repair faced strong opposition. The idea was resisted by an economic landscape where many manufacturers often maintained a monopoly over even simple replacement parts. Not only that, but these companies frequently only allowed their authorised service technicians to repair equipment. 

“We are no longer able to fix the things we buy,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, director of The Repair Association, said. While right to repair may have progressed in Europe, the movement faces visceral opposition elsewhere. For now, in many parts of the world, corporate interests driven by the desire to sell more cheaply made, disposable e-waste in waiting are the ones who decide who can repair their products and even what is considered irreparable. 

CLICK HERE to read Part Two of our e-waste series, which explores the human, environmental, and economic cost of e-waste. CLICK HERE for Part Three, investigating some of the more interesting solutions to the problem. 

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Deep decarbonisation and a holistic approach to sustainability are necessary for the creation of truly green data centres.

Click HERE to read part one of this two-part series on the need for green data centres and the obstacles standing between the industry and true decarbonisation. 

The “green data centre” doesn’t go far enough. Until now, access to renewable energy, water and power efficiency, and use of techniques like free cooling have been enough to qualify a data centre as sustainable. Low PUE and net-positive water usage have allowed data centre operators to advertise their ESG bonafides. 

However, some industry experts argue that these metrics are out of step with the industry’s very real and present need for more meaningful emissions reductions. “There is no truly green data centre until we achieve deep decarbonisation,” says Helen Munro, Head of Environment & Sustainability at Pulsant. “It’s important to recognise that this is a journey right now, and not a reality.” 

What makes a green data centre? 

“It’s often assumed that the greenest data centres are new builds. A new build can be designed to be as efficient and self-sufficient as possible, reducing the reliance on external power sources and promoting energy efficiency,” Munro explains. 

However, there’s a problem with building new infrastructure. No matter how energy efficient your data centre is, construction is an inescapably carbon-intensive activity. “We need to balance the efficiency gains of a new building with that impact and consider the improvements that we can make to existing assets,” she argues. 

There’s already some effort in the industry to lengthen upgrade cycles. Google (along with other hyperscalers) has started using its servers and IT equipment for significantly longer amounts of time. Between 2021 and early 2023, the company extended the lifespan of hardware like servers from four to six years. The move, in addition to saving Google as much as $3.4 billion per year, reduces the amount of e-waste considerably.   

The site selection question 

Where you put a data centre also has a meaningful impact on its environmental impact. Powered by local energy sources, plugged into a local grid, drawing water from the local supply, and built using local materials, codes and techniques. Regional power grids often have very different carbon intensities. “Data centres in areas of the Nordics, for example, are benefitting significantly from high availability of renewable power, as well as cooler climates which facilitate lower infrastructure power consumption,” Munro adds. “A well-sited data centre can also feed into local district heat networks, thereby avoiding emissions.” 

Optimising data centre location requires compromise on climate

However,the problem is that we can’t put all our data centres in Norway. Increasingly, as artificial intelligence, IoT and 5G increase localised computing, there’s more demand for lower latency connections. “It can be important for clients to have access to a data centre which is local to them,” says Munro. She adds that “data centres with a local focus should fall back on buying power in the greenest way they can; recognising that approaches such as physical PPAs can give stronger renewable power additionality than a 100% renewable tariff and be ready to engage with opportunities such as heat networks when they become locally feasible.”  

In short, there are many factors that affect a data centre’s sustainability that lie outiside the direct control of the company that builds it.  These factors include “not only the local power grid and climate, but the impacts of the upstream supply chain for infrastructure, hardware and services,” Munro explains. She emphasises how critical it is that organisations committed to building and operating greener data centres “develop a robust plan to maximise their positive influence and recognise that no site can be entirely sustainable unless the wider ecosystem is, too.”

Specifically, she adds that “Organisations should also ensure their concept of ‘sustainability’ includes the impacts beyond their site boundaries, and goes beyond only the carbon footprint.” Munro points out that hydrated vegetable oil (HVO) fuel can result in emissions reductions, its production has also been linked to an increased risk of deforestation. “Focusing on environmental sustainability beyond reducing carbon emissions and involving initiatives to protect local ecosystems and wildlife, will help organisations reinforce their focus on becoming greener,” she notes.

Where do we go from here? 

Is the green data centre a myth, then? Can data centre companies—even those taking a holistic view of their entire environmental impact—actually build facilities that have a light enough environmental footprint to avoid contributing to the climate crisis? 

Munro argues that “We need to consider efficiency in relation to the value of the computing workloads” that data centres host. She argues that “organisations generate and store huge amounts of data every day that is of little-to-no-value to them; so even using the greenest of data centres, this is a waste of power and hardware resources.”  

It’s a complex issue with no easy solution. However, the first step is changing the conversation around what constitutes a green data centre. Operational efficiency is no longer enough to call a data centre green. The entire project, including its impact up and down the supply chain, needs to be considered holistically if meaningful steps are to be taken to reduce environmental impact. 
A recent report by the World Bank argues that “Addressing the climate footprint of data centres requires a holistic approach, including design, manufacturing, procurement, operations, reuse, recycling, and e-waste disposal. Beyond increasing energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, these steps can reduce e-waste and limit the data centre’s environmental footprint throughout the data centre lifecycle.”

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There will be no “truly green” data centres until industry achieves “deep decarbonisation,” according to Pulsant’s Head of Environment & Sustainability.

The data centre’s role in the fight against climate change is an uncertain one. Globally, data centres consume between 1-1.5% of all electricity, according to data collected by the International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2022, data centres used approximately 460TWh of electricity. They also accounted for 3.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the global aviation industry. 

This may sound bad, but the industry’s emissions figures and electricity consumption are actually something of a miracle. As the IEA notes, emissions from data have “grown only modestly despite rapidly growing demand for digital services,” since 2010. They credit energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy purchases, and the broader decarbonisation of electricity grids around the world. 

However, curtailing emissions growth through increased efficiency and renewable power purchase agreements is insufficient. Not only is demand for data centre capacity set to more than double by 2026 (exceeding 1000TWh) thanks to AI, but the IEA suggests that “to get on track with the Net Zero Scenario, [data centre] emissions must drop by half by 2030.” 

Data centre freezes are insufficient

With trillion of dollars in economic impact at stake, it’s highly unlikely data centre growth will be curtailed. 

Some countries, including Singapore, Ireland, and the Netherlands, have stepped in to regulate growth and even freeze their data centre industries, as the burden of massive hyperscale facilities on their nations’ power and water supplies begins to outweigh their economic benefits. One fifth of Irelan’s electricity was consumed by data centres in 2022. By 2026, it will rise to one third of the country’s energy consumption. In response, Ireland’s national electricity utility stepped in and, in May of 2022, effectively banned data centre construction in Dublin

However, regulating on a national or regional level like this only pushes demand elsewhere. The Dublin moratorium is a demonstration of this problem in miniature. Just six months after the moratorium took effect, there were 21 new facilities in the works outside the Dublin area. Many of them “as close to the capital as possible, roughly 80 km away at sites in Louth, Meath, Kildare, Kilkenny, and Wicklow.” 

The same process is being replicated at different scales around the world. Data centre capacity in aggregate isn’t going anywhere but up. The problem is holistic, and therefore the solution should be too. 

The fight for green digital infrastructure

The need for data centre infrastructure that consumes less power, less water, and has a reduced impact on both the local area and global emissions is gaining real traction. 

A report by the World Bank notes that while “Reliable, secure data hosting solutions are becoming increasingly important to support everyday functions across societies,” in order to “ensure sustainable digital transformation, efforts are needed to green digital infrastructure.” 

However, building data centres that are more energy efficient is only half the battle. 

“There is no truly green data centre until we achieve deep decarbonisation,” says Helen Munro, Head of Environment & Sustainability at Pulsant. Only when the industry “embeds respect for nature and resources,” at the site level, throughout the hardware supply chain, the infrastructure, construction process, and throughout supporting power utilities will there ever be such a thing as a “green data centre”. 

CONTINUES IN PART TWO. 

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Janina Bauer, Global Head of Sustainability at Celonis provides some expert insight into the reality of implementing sustainable practices…

Janina Bauer, Global Head of Sustainability at Celonis provides some expert insight into the reality of implementing sustainable practices…

Please tell us more about yourself and your role at Celonis.

I have been involved in sustainability long before it became mainstream. I did a Master’s in Business Administration with a focus on sustainability, and also worked at the U.N. analysing and researching the implementation of its Sustainable Development Goals. I bring that passion for exploring the big ideas around technology and sustainability to my role at Celonis, where I am Global Head of Sustainability. I took over Celonis’ sustainability programme in 2020, overseeing both our progress internally, and our external work where we help our customers using the Celonis Platform, enabling them to operationalise sustainability in all of their business processes.

Why is it essential businesses embed sustainability into business objectives, strategy and decision-making?

Going forward, there is no longer a separation between a business’ bottom line and their sustainability ‘green line’. To be a high-performing organisation in today’s business world, and tomorrow’s, companies need to be both profitable and sustainable. Future-proofed organisations are on top of both aspects, and ensure that sustainability and profitability are embedded into every single decision. There’s no contradiction between being a profitable business and not harming the environment you operate in. In fact, actions that boost sustainability also boost profitability by cutting waste. A key thing to remember is that everyone has a part to play in an organisation’s sustainability journey. It’s not something simply for people with ‘sustainability’ in their job title, but for leaders and workers in every part of the business.

Why are organisations struggling to implement their sustainability goals?

There are several barriers holding businesses back, including the inaccurate perception that sustainability is simply a cost, whereas it often goes hand in hand with profitability. Organisations which are struggling to implement their sustainability goals are often dealing with a people problem. If sustainability is seen as being the business of sustainability specialists only, rather than being integral to an organisation’s DNA, it can be hard to secure alignment and buy-in across the whole business.

Education, in the form of courses and clear communication within an organisation, can help to address fears and reluctance around sustainability, and the perceived cost of embracing change. The other key issue is siloed, unconnected systems which make it harder for business leaders to truly understand their carbon footprint. Many organisations have more than 300 IT systems, and the average business process runs across 10 different systems, with data buried in separate systems from transactional data in ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software to Excel Spreadsheets. Process mining can help business leaders unravel this and identify where efficiencies can be made. This in turn helps to support sustainability objectives and reduce costs and waste.

Should companies should place a greater emphasis on reducing Scope 3 emissions?

When it comes to sustainability objectives, do you think companies should place a greater emphasis on reducing Scope 3 emissions?

For most organisations, Scope 3 emissions, which includes those from all of their downstream and upstream activities, are the Holy Grail when it comes to having an impact on emissions. That’s where the biggest carbon footprint lies and that’s where the most exciting opportunities for rapid progress are.

The data required for a real-time view of Scope 3 emissions is already at businesses’ fingertips – it’s just that it’s buried inside siloed carbon-accounting tools and other software. The first step is to extract this data using process intelligence technologies, and then organisations can make real progress.

How important is technology in helping companies make sustainability gains?

The first step towards having genuine impact in sustainability is to measure the environmental impact of the organisation’s current operations. This is where technology plays a crucial role. Technologies such as process intelligence enable business leaders to make informed decisions around sustainability, working like an ‘X-Ray’ on existing data and highlighting value opportunities, as well as allowing business leaders to understand the full journey of the goods they sell, and all the emissions associated with this. This data allows IT leaders to measure and drive sustainability, comparing performance against best-practice models and collaborating with partners and suppliers to reduce emissions.

What actions do you hope to see from COP28 that will result in tangible outcomes for the corporate world in 2024?

COP28 has offered a unique opportunity to embrace real and meaningful action to combat climate change, as well as a crucial dialogue between politicians, business leaders and decision makers. What I hope to see is more organisations embracing technology and innovation to make strides towards real sustainable change, with a particular focus on decarbonising supply chains and different industry sectors. Many pledges have been made at COP28 with good intentions, but now it falls on leaders to back up those pledges with real, measurable outcomes, using technology to turn their words into actions. Of course, process mining is not a ‘silver bullet’ which can tackle climate change on its own, but it does offer a crucial way for business leaders to find hidden value opportunities and make real advancements in sustainability.

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Nigel Greatorex, Global Industry Manager at ABB, on how digital technologies can support decarbonisation and net zero goals

Nigel Greatorex is the Global Industry Manager for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) at ABB Energy Industries. He explains how digital technologies can play a critical role in the transition to a low carbon world by enabling global emissions reductions. Furthermore, he highlights the role of CCS and how challenges can be overcome through digitalisation.

Meeting our global decarbonisation goals is arguably the most pressing challenge facing humanity. Moreover, solving this requires concerted global action. However, there is no silver bullet to the global warming crisis. The solution requires a mix of investment, legislation and, importantly, innovative digital technologies.

Decarbonisation digital technologies

It’s widely recognised decarbonisation is essential to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Decarbonisation technology is becoming an increasingly important, rapidly growing market. It is especially relevant for heavy industries – such as chemicals, cement and steel. These account for 70 percent of industrial CO2 emissions; equal to approximately six billion tons annually.

CCS digital technologies are increasingly seen as key to helping industries decarbonise their operations. Reaching our net zero targets requires industry uptake of CCS to grow 120-fold by 2050, according to analysis from McKinsey & Company. Indeed, if successful, it could be responsible for reducing CO2 emissions from the industrial sector by 45 percent.

A Digital Twin solution

ABB and Pace CCS joined forces to deliver a digital twin solution. It reduces the cost of integrating CCS into new and existing industrial operations. Simulating the design stage and test scenarios to deliver proof of concept gives customers peace of mind. Indeed, system designs need to be fit for purpose. Also, it demonstrates the smooth transition into CCS operations. Additionally, the digital twin models the full value chain of a CCS system.

Read the full story here

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