Climate change is a tricky concept for humans. While we can see our weather on a day to day basis, we can’t “see” the climate – minor changes over long time scales on a regional or even global basis. In that sense climate change and IT have something in common – everyone has preconceived ideas about something difficult to observe and even more problematic for individuals to personally influence.

So when it comes to the effect of IT, and more specifically data, on climate change, it’s very easy to put that concept in the “too difficult” box. The purpose of writing this is to help make a difference. Firstly with the idea that it’s too complicated or esoteric or someone else’s problem. And secondly, maybe, just maybe, we can individually make choices about how to make things better. And the path to both these objectives is data. More data to help us understand the problem will help us make better decisions.

So let’s begin with three simple questions like Greta might ask you. When you have the answers you will be in a much better position to make a real difference to how your organisation is dealing with climate change related to your data.

QUESTION 1 – Can you describe the 10 year CO2 impact of data inside your own organisation?

What is the link between data and climate change? All data has to live somewhere – either on a mobile device, a server in a data center or a laptop or PC. And they all need power. Electricity generation is a large contributor of greenhouse gases to the environment. Various methods of generation have vastly different carbon footprints.

Source: https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/overview-of-the-electricity-production-2/assessment-4 

For example, burning coal creates a lot of CO2, whereas river hydropower creates almost none. Combined and averaged at a country level it is possible to measure the carbon impact of generating electricity for each country. The EU average is 295g CO2 per kWh. This is the same impact as driving a family car for 3km, for example.

Academic and industry expert Anders Andrae projects within the next 10 years that as much as 21% of global electricity production will be dedicated to IT, with as much as half of that total consumed by data centers. Think about this. 10% of global electricity production going to power data centers.

Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y

This means that your choice of data center provider will have a meaningful impact on the environment. Why? Because the more data your company generates and stores  – typically growing at around 50% CAGR – the more data center capacity is needed. And while the clear industry trend is to move to larger, more efficient data centers, this is merely outsourcing the carbon footprint problem to someone else. If data is indeed the new oil, where do the refineries belong?

So now for some homework. Perhaps an IT manager or CTO can help you. You will be much better informed if you can answer the following questions:

How much data exists in my organisation today? What is the annual growth rate? What are the growth rate assumptions we are making, especially around digital transformation and cloud migration? How much data will we have in 10 years and where will it be?

QUESTION 2 – Do you know where your data is hosted and what your company is doing about fossil fuel powered data?

Where is my company’s data hosted? This question about where your data physically resides is the key.* This is something your IT leadership may not be able to help you answer, or at least not answer fully. Data typically resides in the corporate data center and on cloud services.

With many organisations running hundreds of applications and external hosted services, where business-critical data actually is at any one time is a moving target. Some industry studies suggest as much as 90% of applications are brought into organisations by non-IT users, and those applications are typically cloud based. Using a professional enterprise cloud analysis service, such as Netskope, can create some visibility for you. Narrowing the scope to the most frequently used or data-heavy applications will allow you to approach specific vendors with questions about renewable energy use in their data centers. See Question 3 below on the likely best scenario answer they will give you and what it means.

With that in mind, large compute and store installations within the company’s control – aka “the data center” should be much easier to quantify. The data center can either be located on customer premises and/or with a colocation provider. Simple questions around power use, electricity bill, data center location and data center efficiency can help you form a view of the carbon impact of your data.

*Separate questions exist beyond the scope of this article such as whether your organisation has too much data to use effectively, and/or could implement storage efficiency strategies.

QUESTION 3 – Can you explain why green energy and green energy certificates are two different things?

“My company has been carbon neutral for years – we only use renewable energy” Really? Becoming so-called “100% renewable” for a company is now a well-established path. Firstly the company does not, except in rare cases, invest in creating new renewable energy generation. Instead, companies buy long-term PPA’s (Power Purchase Agreements) and/or Guarantees of Origin certificates that transfer ownership of renewable energy generated by a third party to the company. And this is where the green magic happens.

As soon as the company has bought enough certificates or PPA’s to offset its in-house electricity consumption it can proudly declare 100% renewable status and better still, also claim to be carbon neutral.

This is now known as greenwash. Why? Because it doesn’t affect what the actual source of electricity used for operations is, it doesn’t create new electricity and it doesn’t limit how that certificated renewable electricity is actually used by someone else somewhere else. Nothing in reality changes, other than the company has greenwashed its way to “carbon neutral” status.

So what? Well, knowledge is power, and now you know that green energy certificates are, at best, loosely connected to your actual environmental impact. At worst they are a green indulgence – virtue-signalling salvation for sale on a corporate scale. If your IT operations rely on “grid mix” electricity and cannot be directly powered by locally sourced renewables (eg local solar, wind or hydro) then what can be changed to make it possible?

Putting It All Together

Let’s try a simple example. After speaking with your IT team and DYOR (Doing Your Own Research) you come up with the following facts:

Your company data center in the basement of the Stockholm office can hold up to 200 kW of IT and its operating at 60% utilisation. Sadly your server room is not purpose built as a DC and it’s quite inefficient. The Facilities Manager had to check the electricity usage as it’s not normally his budget line. He was shocked to learn the company was paying for almost 180,000 kWh a month including cooling and other inefficiencies.

You also have some data center space in Frankfurt for a client requirement – just 10 kW in 2 racks in a colocation data center operating at 80% utilisation. Your are billed for 10,000 kWh per month – again a lot more than you need for just the servers, but the DC has to pay for cooling somehow.

Finally your IT team estimate that you should add 20% of the directly controlled total for cloud services, which are mainly hosted by Amazon in their Ireland data center. Let’s add up your CO2 impact:

In this simple example, your company is wise to have the majority of its IT in an extreme low CO2 environment in Sweden. However, the bad news is that the biggest, fastest growing part of your carbon footprint is caused by hosting on a cloud service powered by high carbon intensity fuel. While there are undoubted business benefits, the move to the cloud carries various hidden costs, to us and to the planet.

Next Steps

Answering these questions allows better quality decisions and opens the door to strategic initiatives. “Can I save money and carbon by hosting more of my own applications locally here in Sweden?”, for example. I hope you found this information useful, and I welcome you to contact me directly to discuss how a green colocation data center can help address some of the issues presented.

I will be attending NEXT in Stockholm on Wednesday 24th April and I would love to meet up in person to discuss how together we can make a difference for this and future generations. Please contact me to arrange a meeting if you are also attending or let’s talk on the phone!

Mail Sara
Call! +46 070-561 69 98

Mail Fredrik
Call! +46 070-544 77 49

Fredrik Kallioniemi

About Fredrik Kallioniemi

Fredrik has 25+ years data center experience in techops and commercial roles. His experience includes founder/co-founder, CEO, CTO, CMO, senior advisor and board member in different tech companies. Fredrik has supported both Hydro66 and Facebook in his previous role as CCO at The Node Pole.