No industry is immune from the climate crisis. To some extent, the technology industry, which according to the United Nations Environment Program accounts for 2-3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, has had it easier than most in terms of being held to account. Take for example the energy production and aviation industries: it’s easy to identify emissions and impose restrictions to achieve carbon reductions.
However, the situation has changed for all industries including technology, driven by a combination of regulation, consumer awareness, and investor pressure.
Despite best intentions, implementing a cohesive approach to sustainability can be a minefield, with many factors to take into consideration, including compliance with Scope 1 and 2 emissions and a host of other standards and acronyms.
It’s easy to become tripped up by this complexity and important for companies to remain savvy in their approaches to carbon reduction strategies and compliance.
In an effort to reduce emissions (and be seen to do so), many companies have signed up to carbon offsetting schemes as a key component of ESG programs. These schemes allow companies to purchase ‘carbon credits’ to offset their emissions. The tree planting and other activity that underpins these schemes often takes place in countries far away from the company’s operations and they are the subject of a significant amount of criticism.
While they can claim to have some impact on at least slowing the rate of worldwide carbon emissions, as a recent research-based article in The Guardian points out, they have serious flaws, with 90 percent of the rainforest credits analyzed being unlikely to represent genuine carbon reductions.
Increased scrutiny of carbon offsetting is resulting in cynicism and a growing belief that it’s a form of greenwashing. This is happening in parallel with an increased awareness of environmental issues and regulatory clampdowns, with new legislation likely to address greenwashing. What is clear is that the technology sector needs to address the root causes of the problem, which include direct carbon emissions, supply chain-related emissions, and power consumption.
Reigning-in data center emissions
Data centers are only one part of the technology landscape, but a very important one when it comes to carbon emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), data centers accounted for an estimated 1-1.3 percent of global final electricity demand in 2022.
As a result of our insatiable demand for data and the fact that the number of data centers worldwide continues to grow, it is inevitable they will continue to be significant contributors to global carbon emissions. In 2020, the world produced 64.2 zettabytes of data, and by 2025, that figure is expected to triple to 181 zettabytes. In actuality, this may be a low estimate, given the rapid rise of generative AI and the masses of new data it will create.
The good news is that much can be done now by data center operators to reduce their emissions – and there is some evidence to suggest this is already happening. For example, the IEA notes that data center energy usage (excluding crypto) has seen only modest growth since 2010, which it attributes to efficiency improvements in IT hardware and cooling.
Energy Innovation Policy & Technology, a non-partisan energy and climate policy think tank, calculated that storage accounts for around 11 percent of data center energy consumption. While this is a relatively modest figure, compared with the cooling & power provision systems (43 percent) and servers (43 percent), it’s still significant – and something that the data storage sector should address.
Here are three ways that data center carbon footprints can be lowered in the near term:
- More energy-efficient storage technology. All-flash storage arrays in general use less power, take up less space, and require less cooling than disk-based storage. In fact, flash-based arrays use five to 10 times less power than comparable hard disk systems. On top of this, some all-flash solutions are more efficient because hardware and software are co-engineered to optimize flash. Additionally, as they don’t have any moving parts when deployed in data centers, less cooling is required.
- Embrace consumption-based storage-as-a-service (STaaS) models, which drive energy efficiency by using only what is necessary. Subscription service offerings allow organizations to pay for the resources they need without having to run and manage what isn’t being used: maximizing investment and cutting energy consumption.
- Take advantage of hardware with a modular design that allows for the replacement or upgrading of specific components instead of entire systems. This drives down emissions throughout the supply chain, while also sending less e-waste to landfill.
As an industry, technology can take action and reduce carbon emissions, while continuing to innovate and make allowance for the ever-increasing demand for data storage.
Failing to address the root causes of the issue with initiatives that only mask the scale of the problem, along with greenwashing, must end. This is a problem that we can own and solve together.