We need to talk about sustainability

Written By

Scott Balloch
Director of Energy and Sustainability


Colt Data Center Services

Scott Balloch, director of energy and sustainability at Colt Data Centre Services explains why the data centre sector needs to put an increased emphasis on sustainability.

Technology is a key enabler for both businesses and consumers alike and over the past year, dependency on digital infrastructure has increased dramatically. In fact, by 2035 it is expected that all IT will consume 8.5 per cent of global electricity, compared to five per cent in 2021 – and data centres are expected to take up a large share of this demand. The data centre industry is becoming increasingly accountable for its energy consumption and has a key role to play in driving sustainable operations, directly contributing towards five of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Businesses increasingly recognise that they are expected to be at the forefront of the net-zero transition, and it is a critical time for those operating in the technology sector to not only lead by example but help their customers bring about positive change too. Working with net-zero data centres is a key element in bringing about more sustainable operations, which is why Colt DCS has committed to hitting global net-zero emissions in our data centres by 2040.

Green initiatives

The increased discussion around corporate and social responsibility is leading IT decision-makers to make key procurement decisions based on environmental and sustainability criteria. However, there are many factors that data centre companies need to take into consideration when mapping out initiatives and setting goals for their green vision.

For instance, planning data centre capacity can often be problematic. As traditional planning cycles account for requirements that last around a decade, balancing long-term goals given the lightning-speed of technological innovation is incredibly complex. Nevertheless, a greater emphasis on sustainable and social responsibilities associated with the running of scalable estates means efficiency gains at data centres are a top priority.

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

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

A collective effort

Championing climate initiatives within the organisation can have immense positive impact on the environment. However, as businesses operate within ecosystems with different stakeholders, suppliers and partners interacting on different levels, organisations are influenced by each other’s green policies and actions.

Therefore, one of the main obstacles for companies with green ambitions is being reliant on these other organisations’ commitment to environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) goals. For instance, a company might need to source parts, material, and labour from elsewhere. Business leaders would like to source this from organisations that are also driving a sustainability agenda, so the carbon footprint of their supply chain is lower, but that requires other stakeholders to also make that decision and drive collective action.

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

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

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

By prioritising sustainability, the data centre industry can make significant improvements and innovations in its operations, process reliability which enable efficiencies gains that ultimately lead to cost savings for both operators and customers.

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