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Securing a greener future for the internet

As the global demand for data rises exponentially, energy-intensive data centres are prioritising sustainability in a bid to reduce their carbon footprint

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the world economy depended on coal, then oil and now, in the 21st century, data has become the world’s indispensable commodity. Our dependence on coal and oil had disastrous environmental consequences and now, as we face the prospect of catastrophic global warming, our demand for data is resulting in an insatiable thirst for power that may prove equally devastating.

The amount of data that’s created each year has begun to grow exponentially. In 2020, every human on the planet generated 1.7 megabytes of information every second, but by 2025, that figure is predicted to reach 463 exabytes: that’s 463 quintillion bytes of data, per person, per second1 2.

This increase in the volume of data corresponds with increased pressure and continued demand on data centres – the physical facilities that house the routers, switches, firewalls, storage systems, servers and application-delivery controllers on which the internet relies. Without data centres there would be no internet, email, applications, or cloud computing, no artificial intelligence or machine learning.

Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, the demand placed on data centres was increasing and as with so many other areas of life post-pandemic, the lockdown has served to highlight and to accelerate this trend, with people spending the majority of their time learning, working and entertaining from home. Entire industries, including retail and banking, are forever changed by Covid-19 and the acceleration in the move online. Global internet traffic rose by more than 40 per cent in 2020 and could double again by 2023 if current trends continue3.

Unsurprisingly, generating and processing this much data comes at a significant environmental cost, especially if the data centres consume power that’s generated by fossil fuels. It is estimated that there are 7.2 million data centres globally4 and when combined with the energy consumption associated with their transmission networks, they account for two per cent of the world’s electricity use5.

However, energy efficiency and sustainability have long been at the top of the agenda for the data centre industry, with the sector working to continue to identify new and innovative solutions to offset carbon emissions. There are already numerous industry efforts, including the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres, the EU Sustainable Taxonomy sections on data centres, and the Green Public Procurement for data centres, servers and cloud. Additional initiatives include BREEAM – the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for master planning projects, infrastructure and buildings – and Blue Angel, Germany’s ecolabel organisation, as well as a new metric called KPI4DCE, a system of indicators that assesses the resource efficiency and impact of data centres.

Most recently, in January 2021, some of Europe’s leading cloud and data centre providers joined forces under the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact (CNDCP) to set their own climate-neutral target of 2030. The pact is far-reaching, covering energy efficiency, water, clean energy, the circular economy and heat recovery, with data centres agreeing to it voluntarily in order to contribute to the goals of the European Green Deal.

Matthew Pullen, EVP, Managing Director Europe with CyrusOne, a leading specialist in carrier-neutral data centres, was recently appointed as the European Data Centre Association (EUDCA) representative to the Board of Directors for the CNDCP. CyrusOne is prioritising the construction of hyperscale, cloud and large enterprise data centres in Europe, which are more energy efficient than traditional in-house enterprise computing platform in a bid to deploy clean energy in data centres at scale.

Despite the many initiatives in place, Pullen is realistic about the challenges facing the industry. “As the world continues to move through and eventually recover from the pandemic, staying committed to building sustainable data centres and keeping the future in mind will require determination and innovation, especially as there will likely be many obstacles to navigate in the here and now,” he says.

In working toward this goal CyrusOne has been concentrating on the growth of cloud computing, mitigating the effects of increasing water scarcity, and the greening of the electrical grid in its efforts to improve its impact on the environment.

“We are meeting this head on with initiatives to support sustainability goals,” said Pullen. “Whether through implementation of renewable resources, sustainable design, or operational excellence, we are doing everything we can to drive efficiency and consistency. The industry is constantly innovating and developing new technologies to improve sustainability. Invention, research and creating opportunities is a constant focus, and we will keep investing in energy efficiency. We are not done yet.”

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