Data centers could cause serious damage to the environment – if we don’t regulate them now

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With the average adult spending 4.2 hours a day on smartphone apps in 2020, our reliance on technology has grown even more than we might have thought. From ordering food to connecting with loved ones or the binge of the latest series, our data consumption is an integral part of everyday life.

As a result, businesses are also consuming more data than ever before, and this trend is only going to grow. But our tech-savvy ways could do lasting damage to the planet.

While the move to the cloud has promised to fix many of our data overload issues, data centers now produce the same amount of emissions as the global airline industry.

As COP26 draws to a close, one of the biggest challenges international leaders have failed to tackle is to set stricter and clearer regulations for the exponentially growing cloud industry.

The truth about “carbon neutrality”

Many tech companies have publicly declared that they are “carbon neutral,” but the truth is not so clear. Many of them simply buy renewable energy certificates or RECs to offset emissions on paper and do not provide proper transparency in their emissions calculations. And that’s a big deal.

Without clear, transparent and universal reporting standards, we cannot know what percentage of green energy is used to power data centers and what percentage comes from the purchase of REC offsets.

RECs are fine as a band-aid for emissions, but by no means a long-term solution.

We cannot repair the damage caused by the climate crisis after the fact, so it is important that we focus instead on building data centers that are actually better for the environment.

The lack of reporting standards not only means that we fail to record greenhouse gas emissions, it also obscures other harmful factors.

According to the Uptime Institute’s 2021 Global Data Center Survey, while many reports on power consumption, electricity and water resources needed to keep data centers cool are often not tracked or taken into account. E-waste is also not created by the need to constantly replace servers.

For example, in the Netherlands, data centers use an average of 1 million cubic meters of water per year, equivalent to 19,230 one-person households.

Earlier this year, reports pointed out that residents of North Holland could experience water shortages due to data centers. Although this claim was later challenged by the local government, it raised concerns about the impact that increasing water consumption through the growth of data centers could have in an increasingly growing climate. hotter.

Can sustainability and technology thrive together?

Our reliance on technology to power our businesses and our daily lives proves that our needs for data processing will only increase.

While data consumption and sustainability may seem to be at competing ends of the spectrum, momentum is shifting towards the idea of ​​greener and more sustainable forms of cloud computing. More and more consumers are demanding that companies take a proactive role in reducing their emissions, with a focus on big tech companies and cloud providers to solve the problem.

While consumer awareness and activism are important in putting pressure on businesses, it is governments that will need to set stricter emission reduction targets and transparent reporting standards.

The European Union has been a leader in this area with its ambitious Green Deal, which also includes a call for data centers to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

With more companies looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, this could pave the way for EU-based data service providers to take the lead.

Across Europe, countries like Finland – which invest heavily in renewable energy – are seen as examples of green technology innovators and serve as inspiration for those seeking greener energy consumption. In France, new legislation puts pressure on cloud providers to reduce their energy consumption.

Some cloud providers are also going further to measure their impact. Cloud provider Scaleway is developing a measure of real data center efficiency to provide customers with an objective view of their environmental impact. In doing so, the tech company provides consumers with the transparency and information they need to make the best choice for themselves.

But, in order to hold global data centers accountable for progress in sustainable development, there must be clear and comparable standards at all levels, not only for power consumption and PUE, but also for others. factors such as water consumption and electronic waste reduction.

As we face consumer pressure and new data center legislation, there needs to be more pressure on businesses to choose green cloud providers. Today, as companies are pushed to reduce their carbon footprint, they are not held accountable for emissions generated by data stored on external cloud servers.

Importantly, from 2023, new legislation will require EU-based companies with more than 250 employees to report on their environmental impact, just as they report their financial results.

While there are many concerns that world leaders need to take into account when it comes to climate change, with ever-increasing data consumption, taking action to promote greener cloud services is not something that needs to be done. we can afford to ignore.

Here are some ways they can do it:

  • Define clear and universal environmental reporting standards for data centers
  • Include water consumption, carbon emissions from IT or data centers, and electronic waste in the calculations
  • Provide incentives for data centers to invest in the adoption and research of green technologies (especially in new cooling techniques)
  • Make companies responsible for emissions linked to their external data and encourage them to choose green data service options
  • Ban water towers in Europe
Photo of Albane Bruyas

Learn more about the sustainable data center strategy of European cloud provider Scaleway in COO Albane Bruyas’ keynote address at TNW 2021, “Why sustainability makes sense for the business”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZCKkDZnaXg


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