Barcelona — Many people assume that the digital transformation of companies is an unavoidable step towards sustainability. In fact, if used well and taken to scale, digital technologies could reduce emissions by 20% by 2050 in the three sectors that emit the most: energy, raw materials and transportation.
However, digitization was estimated to have generated 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to consultancy Ernst & Young.
More than 65% of the digital data collected and stored by companies is single-use data, according to researchers from the Digital Decarbonisation Association, linked to the Loughborough University in England.
And all users are contributing, when we upload almost identical images to the cloud and with documents that we relegate to oblivion and which will never be opened again, among other cases.
Storing this data takes up space on servers and generates higher electricity consumption, leaving a digital carbon footprint along the way.
When the challenge of zero emissions is raised, the biggest polluters that come to mind are sectors such as construction, aviation and heavy industry. But data centers represent an additional front in the fight against climate change, and which are alone responsible for 2.5% of all human-generated carbon dioxide, a figure higher than that produced by the aviation industry (2.1%), according to the World Economic Forum.
Moreover, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), data center energy consumption is expected to increase significantly in the coming years, accounting for up to 8% of global electricity consumption by 2030.
Although countries are racing against the clock on their emissions reduction targets, “companies as a whole are still not very aware of the impact of ‘dark data’,” Esade Operations, innovation and data sciences department professor Esteve Almirall said.
However, that doesn’t mean that data centers are sitting on their hands.
In order to become more energy efficient and more sustainable, companies are looking to adapt their infrastructure, employing measures ranging from the design of their own processors - using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as deep learning to train data -, the generation of renewable energies, to the construction of closed cooling circuits, which also reduces water consumption, explained the academic.
“Large data center companies are producing processors that consume very little energy. And artificial intelligence computing models make it possible to significantly moderate energy use for very simple tasks,” Almirall said.
Among the tech giants that is working to reduce its digital carbon footprint is Amazon Web Services (AWS), the most widely adopted cloud service globally, and which has some of the most advanced technologies in terms of green transition.
Consultancy 451 Research estimates that the AWS infrastructure is five times more energy efficient than an average European enterprise data center. Amazon bills itself as the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, and is on track to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, ahead of its initial 2030 target, Jake Oster, AWS director of Energy and Environmental Policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, told Bloomberg Línea.
The group inaugurated a cloud hub in Spain late last year with three different centers, with an investment of €2.5 billion over 10 years, and which is the 31st of all the infrastructures that AWS operates globally and the eighth in Europe.
“Our latest chip, the Graviton 3, designed by AWS, consumes 60% less energy compared to the previous version. And to cool the data centers we use outside air when the temperature permits. With these innovations, we are able to operate our data centers with a strong focus on efficiency,” the AWS executive said, adding that the company is moving to open 16 renewable energy projects in Spain, three wind farms and the others solar, which will generate 1.5 GWh of capacity in the country - enough to supply 850,000 homes a year. Two of those projects are already underway.
A driving force
Large companies will be responsible for making the “push” to get smaller ones, and even consumers, involved in reducing the carbon footprint as well, Juan Carlos Coma, head of Iberia telco, media & technology at Atos, a European leader in digital services and a hardware manufacturer, told Bloomberg Línea.
“In addition to worrying about the whole issue of corporate responsibility and the environment, which adds value to the brand, it will become increasingly expensive to emit CO2: electricity consumption will now be measured in euros and also in emissions. Governments will demand that large companies demonstrate that they are reducing carbon in the entire chain - it has to be from within and also among their suppliers, and they can even involve the customer,” Coma said.
Following the recommendations of the United Nations International Panel of Experts to reduce global net emissions by 43% by 2030, compared to 2019 levels, Atos has created a plan to become “net zero” by 2028, with measures ranging from planting trees, using renewable energy in its facilities and data centers to prioritizing “eco-design” in the products it manufactures - servers with the capacity to process data more efficiently, made from materials that are easier to recycle.
A promising outlook
Manuel Giménez, executive director of data center association Spain DC, said that the construction of new data centers in Spain is already aiming for emissions neutrality. He says the focus of data centers on sustainability is leading to Spain becoming a new, and very promising, hub in southern Europe.
“Companies are increasingly looking for renewable energies in data center facilities. In this sense, Spain stands out for having a lot of wind and many hours of sunshine to generate energy,” he said.
Giménez also pointed to the country’s strategic geographical location.
“Spain is a connection point of submarine headlands, which connects it directly towards North and South America, Africa, the Middle East and to continental Europe through the Mediterranean,” he said, and he estimates that the data center sector will make direct investments in excess of €6 billion in the country between 2022 and 2026.
And in this calculation Spain DC does not consider the contributions of the huge data storage facilities built by companies of such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.