Industry Voices

How data centres can manage their climate impact

Biotechnology Concept Green environment with Center and spoke Co

CyrusOne's Kyle Myer's on how operators can minimise their climate impact by assessing their business activities holistically.

The data centre industry is taking climate change seriously. It is no longer a far-off event—climate change is a present issue affecting global communities, seen across the world with record temperatures this year, rising sea levels and flooding. It is also a future issue that experts predict will cause increasingly common catastrophic natural disasters if we don’t dramatically decrease our carbon emissions within the next decade.

All businesses and industries share responsibility to reduce carbon emissions, otherwise known as their climate impact. However, data centres and their operators have a particular obligation to reduce climate impact given how our concentration of computing power results in a large amount of electricity use, which may contribute to climate change if generated from fossil fuels.

There are a range of ways that data centre operators can reduce and mitigate against their carbon contribution, including setting realistic and measurable goals towards impactful progress. As a responsible corporate citizen, CyrusOne has set a goal to reach net zero carbon in our global operations by 2030. We also have SBTi-approved near-term Science-based Carbon Targets ensure a glidepath to 2030 for all operations and reached climate neutral for our European facilities in 2022 as part of our commitment to the Climate Neutral Data Center Pact.

But to fully reach net zero carbon, companies must ensure they are implementing strategies to address the climate impact from energy use and associated carbon emissions across global operations. So what steps should be taken first?

First, it’s important to acknowledge and effectively measure the greenhouse gas emissions contributed across global data centre facilities. With the guidance of the World Resource Institute Greenhouse Gas Protocol (WRI GHGP), companies can complete an annual greenhouse gas inventory, which shows direct emissions from electricity, diesel, and natural gas. In addition, you can estimate your largest indirect emissions, which can include those from energy supply chains, construction, employee travel, and customer-operated data centres, which is helpful to understand where you’re at as a business now and where progress can be made.

Second, companies can work towards reducing their overall carbon footprint by decreasing energy consumption and directly procuring renewables. When emissions are known, the industry can directly avoid emissions in the design of all facilities and through the grids that they pull energy from. By replacing inefficient chillers with high efficiency versions, optimising cooling equipment and customer server arrangements, and even upgrading lighting fixtures to LED lighting, energy use and resulting carbon emissions can be reduced. By supporting renewable energy generation projects that supply energy to the grids that our facilities rely on, we will be able to procure more carbon-free energy now and into the future.

Finally, offset mechanisms like Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) could be considered as a short-term instrument to help offset carbon emissions while long-term renewable projects are developing and when renewable projects provide most, but not all, of a facility’s energy use. While it’s potentially unrealistic to achieve net zero carbon by 2040 with RECs, they are instead more of a temporary incremental mechanism.

Although as an industry, we have made strides toward our net zero carbon targets both in the US and EU, we won’t be able to combat climate change on our own, with the data centre industry only one piece of the puzzle. Without the cooperation of all industries to significantly lower carbon emissions, businesses, communities, and ecosystems across the world will continue to face climate risks, such as droughts, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

In the data centre industry, there is a large focus on reducing climate impact and less discussion of adapting to climate risk; however, both are equally important to manage. Creating a strategy to reduce climate impact does not inherently reduce climate risk or vice versa.