23 Apr 2021

Is Net Zero a realistic goal?

This year, the sustainability targets have changed. Last year, data centre operators would aim to score a good value on an industry metric like PUE (power utilisation effectiveness), or promise to use more renewable energy. This year, they have a bold new target: Net Zero.

There’s a reason for that. The climate crisis is now acknowledged by everyone who counts. There’s widespread agreement, based on the science, that the human race needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero. The 2016 Paris Agreement, signed by 195 states, declared we must reach net zero by 2050, if we want to keep global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

The political will has been gathering slowly but, in the US, climate change denial has gone out of style as Trump left the White House and President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, declaring this week that this will be the decisive decade for tackling climate change.

On this side of the pond, the European Union launched its Green Deal back in 2019, with the goal of making Europe a climate neutral continent by 2050.

Data centres are going to be a part of that. They enable the digital services which will help other sectors to smarten up and decarbonise. But they also need to get rid of the emissions they themselves cause. So data centre operators are starting to make promises to be carbon-neutral or climate-neutral.

Europe’s leading data centre operators and cloud providers got together in a Climate Neutral Data Center Pact, at the start of 2021. This also includes my blog hosts, Kao Data. They have collectively promised to be climate neutral by 2030 - sooner than the EU requires.

The wording “climate neutral” comes from the EU’s Green Deal, and they are a “stroke of genius”, according to one of the Pact’s founders Michael Winterson of Equinix, because they set a bigger target than just carbon emissions. Climate neutrality requires data centres to reduce their impact in areas where climate measures have so far been somewhat sketchy and voluntary - such as water conservation, and waste recycling.

But even the carbon emissions part of the target will require serious work. Shifting to renewable energy tariffs will not be enough, for several reasons. Firstly using up renewable energy could take it from other customers: data centres should directly fund the creation of new renewable energy.

And secondly, even renewable energy creates emissions, because of the lifecycle of the equipment used. Building a hydro-electric plant creates emissions which must be accounted for across the plant’s lifetime. Wind turbines and solar panels likewise embody emissions.

Those figures are small, of course: Energy from a hydroelectric plant has a carbon cost of 9g of CO2 per kWh, wind power costs 12g/kWh, and solar power costs 30g/kWh, according to figures given by Lars Schedin, CEO of EcoDataCenter in a recent Datacenter Dynamics event:

Obviously, burning diesel dwarfs that, with a cost of some 270g of CO2 per kWh - but if data centres move to renewable energy, they will have to find ways to offset this residual environmental cost.

Data centres will also have to factor in their own embodied emissions. For most buildings, these emissions can be bigger than the emissions created by the building’s users over its entire lifetime - because concrete generates incredible amounts of emissions.

Data centres can actually generate more emissions in their useful life than in their building - but that is because they are so energy intensive.

Because so many of its signatories are multinational, the EU Climate Neutral Data Center Pact will have impacts beyond Europe, whether or not the EU reaches its goal of being the first climate-neutral continent. There’s also a history of other EU initiatives - like GDPR - being copied elsewhere.

On balance, moving to Net Zero is not just realistic, it’s essential. And initiatives like the EU Climate Neutral Data Center Pact are going to be a good start towards getting there.

Further Reading - You can download a copy of Kao Data's 2021 paper on data centres and sustainability here.

Peter Judge (Guest)

Peter Judge is Global Editor at Datacenter Dynamics and a freelance tech writer on data centres, the cloud and networking. You can follow him at: @judgecorp


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