Data centres and the global climate emergency


    Are data centre boardrooms taking climate change seriously enough and what impact is the increasing use of digital technologies having on electricity consumption? How should data centres and consumers respond?

    A recent Ipsos Mori poll shows that 85% of Britons are now concerned about climate change, with the majority (52%) saying they are “very concerned”. 

    Three in four believe that Britain is already feeling the effects of climate change, up from 41% in 2010. In addition, the majority believe that the UK should bring all emissions to net zero earlier than 2050. 

    Day-to-day items are now including energy usage on their labelling, so why not IT? This was one of the many questions debated by a panel session at Data Centre Dynamics (DCD), in London. With data centres, in particular, under scrutiny for their electricity consumption, energy efficiency and sustainable IT was high on the agenda at DCD. 

    But what exactly is the scale of the problem? Anders Andrae, who works on sustainable ICT at Huawei Technologies, predicts that data centre electricity use is likely to increase about 15-fold by 2030, to 8% of projected global demand. 

    The investigation suggests, for the worst-case scenario, that electricity usage for communication technology could contribute up to 23% of the globally released greenhouse gas emissions in 2030. However, are these figures alarmist or do they represent an accurate picture of spiralling energy usage? 

    Speaking at DCD, Lancaster University’s Dr Mike Hazas attempted to unpick some of the figures around energy consumption.

    He commented: “If you look at what it takes to provide IT services, there is the device itself and its manufacturing, the network and the data centre. Taking this as a whole, IT services account for 9-10% of global electricity consumption. Of this, 20% is in the data centre, 30% in the network, 15% in the manufacturing and 35% is attributed to the power used when the device is plugged into the socket.”

    Dr Hazas said that, when it comes to sustainability, we need to think “more broadly than the data centre”. He commented that the explosion of apps has been made possible by data centres; online streaming of video has become responsible for the dominant share of the traffic and this trend will continue to increase, particularly with the advent of 5G. 

    “We are spending more time watching screens; sometimes we are watching multiple screens at once… social networking is also big and we are seeing automated ‘traffic’, such as app updates and cloud back-ups… but we are looking at 3% of global electricity consumption for streaming alone. 

    “This is running on top of all the broadcast communications. We may think that, given what we get out of this as a society, that 3% is ok. But what if it is 6% in five years? Is 10% ok? What do we think is a reasonable stopping point?”

    Dr Hazaz pointed out that it requires “two and a half times the power” to stream a film to your phone via 4G compared with streaming over WiFi. “5G is more efficient per Bit, but the rise in demand that is anticipated will far outstrip any efficiency gains,” he added. 

    Uptime Institute executive director Andy Lawrence commented: “I don’t trust anyone’s numbers. The Uptime Institute is planning on conducting collaborative research with different parties in the sector…

    “The impact of factors such as 5G are completely unpredictable, and what will happen when electric cars come along? Then we have the whole mystery of Bitcoin.”

    Dave Johnson, executive vice-president at Schneider Electric’s Secure Power Division, added that in 2018 “around 24,000TWh of electricity were used; data centres accounted for 300TWh, or 1.3% of global electricity consumption. Telcos – another part of the equation – accounted for 400TWh; the rest, which we term ‘the edge’, accounted for another 500TWh. Together, this accounts for 5% of electricity usage.” 

    He pointed out that demand for electricity is growing rapidly. The figure of 24,000TWh will increase to 45,000TWh by 2035, with telcos increasing from 400TWh to 2,000TWh, with the rollout of 5G. 

    “For 2035, we predict 8.5% of electricity would be driven by IT,” commented Johnson. “In terms of power usage, the big data centres are actually quite modest in terms of their growth rate. The bigger issue is the telco sector and the edge.”

    He pointed out that discussion around sustainability also needs to consider the circular economy and the recycling of equipment such as batteries. This becomes a particular issue with the growth of the edge.

    “How do you take care of all this ‘stuff’ scattered everywhere? The big data centres are working with governments in relation to sustainability and renewables, but the edge is a much bigger problem,” he continued.

    Consumer responsibility

    Noelle Walsh, corporate vice-president – cloud operations and innovation at Microsoft, commented that although there is discussion around controlling data centre energy usage, when it comes to managing consumer behaviour, the issue becomes much more complex. We “need to manage zero carbon footprint”, in her view. 

    Emma Fryer, associate director at UK technology industry trade association TechUK, commented: “I don’t think the consumer will regulate this.” 

    Fryer pointed out that the public do not know how much energy they are using when they download a film.

    ‘You cannot manage what you cannot measure’

    Fryer also offered her view on current data centre energy usage: “The 2018 figure for the UK commercial data centre sector, covering 175 facilities, was 2.89TWh; as a percentage of UK electricity consumption, we are talking about 0.8%,” she said.

    Fryer pointed out that this does not include other facilities, such as public sector server rooms, so this figure could be treble. She suggested that data centre consumption of electricity is probably somewhere around the widely cited 2% mark, commenting: “I don’t think we are that far out, but I do think it is important to measure this. 

    “Whatever [the predictions], these are big numbers and we need to minimise these figures…we are not going to know the answers immediately… these are disruptive technologies and they are changing all the time. It is like herding cats.”

    Susanna Kass, data centre advisor to UN Sustainable Development, said: “A UN report showed that, today, data centre global emissions are similar to road transport… If we do not solve the problem, and act like it is business as usual, it will increase by 10%. This is unthinkable. You need to start to measure it, then you can start to understand the problem.” 

    Gary Cook, senior corporate campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “We need to focus on what we are doing in the next 10 years, not by 2050.” 

    Cook believes that new infrastructure must be powered with renewables, but we have “aspirations to be on the top deck of the Titanic”, when what we really need is to “steer the ship in the right direction”. 

    So are data centre operators doing enough to steer the ship in the right direction and are data centre boardrooms taking climate change seriously?

    Andy Lawrence believes it is taken seriously in Europe and among consumer facing US companies, such as Microsoft, Equinix and Apple. However, for mid-level companies, especially in the US, there is “still scepticism”. 

    “It is not yet a top three concern. However, this is going to change in the next 10 years, as the Millennials start to take political power. There will be much more pressure and legislation, instead of just talk,” he commented.

    Lawrence believes that legislation forcing data centres to reuse heat, through district heating, could spread across the globe and a change in attitudes will impact data centre design and operation. 

    “The focus will be on climate emergency, rather than climate change being ‘something nice to do something about’,” he said.


    In conclusion, the panel agreed that you “cannot manage what you do not measure”; energy consumption across the IT sector is growing, and data centres will face increasing pressure and legislation to tackle their carbon footprint in the future.

    It appears that, for delegates at DCD, however, this shift in attitudes is already happening. The audience was asked: “Is climate change a major topic of conversation in your organisation?” 

    The majority raised their hands…


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