Net Zero and Data Centers: Is It Possible?
In This Article
In a world increasingly impacted by an accelerating frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, sustainability is now top of mind.
The media is providing non-stop coverage of the impacts of climate change, fueled by increased carbon emissions, and the plethora of responses ranging from companies, cities, and countries pledging Net Zero commitments over the next decade(s) to governments implementing carbon reduction measures.
That said, you may be wondering:
- What does Net Zero mean and how can you get there?
- How can IT and its supply chain play a role in helping data centers be more sustainable?
- Ho can organizations really understand and assess their progress towards getting to Net Zero?
Science Based Targets: These are emission-reduction targets adopted by companies to reduce GHG emissions and are considered "science-based" if they are in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures, as described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
For a company to sign up to a science-based target, it will need to establish its own carbon footprint incorporating their Scope 1,2 and most likely, Scope 3 emissions.
Scope 1, 2 and 3 Emissions
- Scope 1 emissions are those that come from company-owned or controlled sources.
- Scope 2 emissions are those that arise from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling consumed by the reporting company.
- Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company's value chain and are the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, and that indirectly impacts its value chain, including all sources not within an organization's scope 1 and 2 boundaries.
Scope 3 emissions are usually the greatest share of the carbon footprint, covering emissions associated with purchasing, raw materials, business travel, waste and water, investments, and product disposal.
Overview of GHG Protocol scopes and emissions across the value chain
Some interesting points about Scope 3 emissions:
- There are 15 sub-categories within Scope 3 emissions– eight that are upstream and seven downstream.
- They can often represent as much as 80 percent of a company's total emissions.
- In most cases, only half of the 15 categories apply to any individual company.
- Purchasing and product use tend to be quite significant for many organizations.
Value chain emissions often make up the bulk of companies' GHG emissions and, therefore, climate impact, but they are typically the most difficult to track, measure and address.
Several tools are available to help companies establish their Scope 3 emissions based on industry segment, size, and other key indicators. But the task is often complex and companies can sometimes struggle to navigate the Scope 3 landscape and as a result have not always recorded or reported their Scope 3 emissions, and despite best intentions are significantly under-reporting their GHG emissions.
There are various considerations in planning to get to Net Zero, including:
Behavioral and operational efficiency or maximizing what you've got. This can include:
- Do you have full visibility into current levels of efficiency and throughput?
- Is your current infrastructure optimized and operating at maximum capacity?
- Are workloads optimized?
Equipment upgrades. This can include:
- Do you have a full understanding of the energy intensity and energy utilization of your existing equipment?
- Are you using the most energy efficient equipment?
- Have you undertaken cost-benefit analysis of changing certain aspects of your configuration (e.g., cost of new equipment offset by the reduction in energy consumption and emissions)?
On-site renewable power generation
- Is on-site renewable power generation an option to consider?
Off-site renewable power generation
- Is off-site renewable power generation an option to consider?
Offsets, RECs and other tools. It is best to think about these tools when all the above options have been fully exhausted. With each having its nuances, advantages and drawbacks, these will be covered in a later article.
Behavioral and operational efficiency
Most energy waste comes from poor use of the resources we already have. Increasing utilization of storage and compute will avoid overbuying and wastage of idle systems. Balancing workloads across the data center will help optimize resources. Monitoring consumption at the rack level and thereafter distributing resources evenly. Or turning the lights off when you leave the room -- each of these areas have solutions available today along with automation and optimization services.
Older, less efficient systems are the next most significant contributor to energy inefficiency. Moving to modern flash-based storage arrays can reduce emissions tenfold. Modernizing infrastructure and removing technical debt will increase efficiency significantly. Similarly, the physical data center can be upgraded with hot/cold aisle containment, switching to DC power and other efficiency measures.
Depending on the location and the local environment, it may be possible to add renewable power generating to the data center. Solar panels and wind turbines are increasingly being used to power some or all the data center locally.
If it is not possible to use on-site renewables, then obtaining a supply from a local, renewably sourced provider will provide clean energy.
Offsets, RECs and other tools
As mentioned above, these should be considered only after exhausting all the above.
The above provides a snapshot of some of the ways businesses can tackle Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions.
As stated earlier, Scope 3 emissions are traditionally more difficult to measure, caused mainly by the lack of data, the quality of some data sources and the effort and time involved. Being able to get data on the purchased goods and services at point of sale would be a huge benefit. It also introduces a new factor in procurement evaluation, the sustainability credentials of the selected product.
This will most likely lead to competitive selection of equipment based on the manufacturing process, the miles travelled to acquire, and other sustainability linked criteria. Providing local sourcing options, and proof of recycled materials in purchases will differentiate VARs, distributors, and OEMs.
The following diagram shows an example of the Scope 1, 2 and 3 emission distribution for Apple Inc.
You can see that 99 percent of Apple's emissions are Scope 3, driven mainly from their manufacturing process. Apple has successfully driven their Scope 2 emissions to zero through the purchase of 100 percent renewable energy.
At the time of writing and pending any announcements from the SEC in the US, Scope 3 emissions reporting is voluntary and can be included in a company's annual report of in their sustainability or ESG report. This is likely to change in the near future requiring some companies to disclose their Scope 3 emissions.
A key question that organizations should ask, can you really get to Net Zero by 2030 or 2050 if you haven't started accounting for your Scope 3 emissions now?