Sustainability, data and the public sector – do the numbers add up?

Julia Esgate Christmas

We’re all aware of the concerns of our environmental impact in our day to day lives, whether that be travelling, food consumption or using too much energy in our homes, but how often do we think about the impact of data centres and email attachments as a significant contributing factor to climate change?

Various estimates have placed data centres as accounting for 2% of the world’s energy consumption – roughly equivalent to the aviation industry, a shocking statistic that highlights the need for all industries to reconsider their digital carbon footprint.

digital carbon footprint

Data Centres, the environment and the future

Data centres are the main source of storing and maintaining data for most companies globally. They’re very energy-intensive, mostly due to their constant requirement of needing temperature-controlled cooling systems as around 40% of the total energy used at data centres goes on cooling the IT equipment itself. Experts believe that building data centres in cooler continents could help to cut the extensive emissions generated by the cooling equipment. To try and reduce their energy consumption and eliminate the need for a cooling system, Google followed the environmental strategy of storing data in these cooler climates and recently invested 600 million euros in creating a data centre in Finland.

Alongside Google, several companies have begun to look at alternative methods of building cooler environments to house data centres, including the use of renewable energy such as wind, hydro or solar power. Companies across the world are encouraged to look at optimising or upgrading their current technology to ensure it’s working to the best of its ability and efficiency.

Using AI to reduce data centres environmental impact

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a method being adapted by various industry giants to improve the energy efficiency of data centres. In recent years, DeepMind and Google jointly developed an AI-powered recommendation system, to improve the energy efficiency of Google’s already highly optimised data centres. Their cloud-based AI pulls a snapshot of the data centre cooling system from a series of sensors, and feeds into their deep neutral networks, predicting how different combinations of actions will affect future energy consumption.

AI has become a critical component in not only ensuring that Google’s important servers run reliably, but it also delivers consistent energy savings. It’s already reduced energy usage around 30% on average in a matter of the first nine months, with further expected improvements over the next few years as the AI continues to learn and improve over time to deliver optimal energy savings at a grander scale.

UK Government Sustainability Strategy

The UK Government has committed to be net carbon zero by 2050, and the consideration of the environmental impact of technology is important to fulfilling this target.

DEFRA (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have developed their ICT sustainability strategy that aims to reduce energy usage and carbon emissions. The strategy has highlighted that data centres were a key aspect to work on to reduce their consumption. To begin to tackle the energy emissions from these centres, DEFRA have partnered with external stakeholders to establish DESA (DEFRA E Sustainability Alliance) to collaborate with various leading IT companies within their supply chain to share their expertise, best practises and to create innovative strategies and solutions to assist in reducing energy consumption and curb emissions.

As part of the National Data Strategy (NDS), the UK Government have added becoming net zero as one of their focus areas within it. They acknowledge that ‘Data infrastructure is energy-intensive, but data collection and analysis can also support environmental sustainability by enhancing the energy efficiency of supply chains and production’ and they acknowledge that the public sector need to work together to harness the power of data to reach the NDS’s net zero target. So far, the NDS forum have met to discuss how to drive to reach net zero, and over the next six months, they are to continue spotlighting examples of where data is making the vital difference and joining up the dots between these initiatives in an aim to reach their goals.

Over the course of the next few decades, the government are required to collate accurate figures of their reductions and continue to improve on them year on year. However, due to a lack of transparency from leading companies globally, the impact of technology is yet to be fully understood or published, and the public sector will need to continually review their footprint, research and learn best practises and solutions from other businesses, such as Google and DeepMind’s AI driven data centres to help reach their 2050 net carbon zero status.

Working on our own personal digital carbon footprints: A few ways you can help to tackle climate change

Data centres may seem like a daunting task to tackle for governments and industry giants, however, as individuals and companies we can all contribute to easing our digital carbon footprint. For example, how many emails do you think you send daily? 10? 100? Every single email we send has its own environmental impact, needing electricity to send and temporarily store it before passing it on. Attachments on emails need more storage, and therefore carbon emissions increase. By just eliminating attachments unless completely necessary, this can have a significant impact on your carbon footprint.

Another way that individuals and companies can help is by switching to cloud-based storage systems, as ‘public cloud services and effectively using strategies like edge computing can help reduce carbon intensity’. Public cloud data centres are more likely to run on renewable energy and embrace the latest technologies, helping to reduce your carbon footprint.

Together, we can begin to form a journey towards a more sustainable future.

To hear more on the topic of sustainable data, using data to tackle climate change and to hear updates on the Greening Government paper, join us at Government Data, co-located with GovTech and the Quantum Advantage Summit. Find out more here.