Leading climate scientists continue to raise the alarm over our planet’s raising temperatures, now warning we are on a trajectory to miss the 1.5C target that is imperative to limit the worst effects of climate change. In response, businesses and policymakers alike are rallying. In the EU, the recent European Green Deal hopes to catalyze the transition to a climate neutral society. In the UK, the Government is following a 10-point plan to achieve net-zero by 2050. Meanwhile, businesses everywhere are dialing up their sustainability measures in a bid to turn climate pledges into climate action. And yet, as businesses and governments scrutinize their carbon footprint closer than ever, one quiet contributor to global carbon emissions is often overlooked.
Data infrastructure currently sits in a blind spot. There was no mention of it, for example, in the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference summit agendas. But every day we consume, store, process and move ever-larger quantities of data. In fact, total worldwide data creation has more than doubled between 2019 and 2022, from 41 zettabytes to 97. This figure is expected to double again in the next three years, until it reaches a staggering 181 zettabytes. Data centers are at the heart of this system, consuming about 3% of global energy supplies each year – about twice as much as in the decade prior. As emerging technologies like AI, machine learning, and the metaverse continue to grow in scale and complexity, our data centers will need to accommodate even larger workloads, which in turn will ramp up energy usage and carbon emissions if left unchecked. For some, it’s happening already.
Decarbonizing data centers – the race is on
In a recent survey of 1,000 global companies commissioned by Hitachi Vantara, almost a third of firms reported that a huge jump in their data volumes is already rapidly widening their carbon footprint. To address the issue, some have turned to the public cloud in hopes it will help them to get a handle on their emissions. But the economics of data sustainability are rarely straightforward. Companies that transfer their carbon emissions to the public cloud aren’t absolved of responsibility for those emissions, they are still accountable in their Scope 3 reporting. To put it plainly: shifting carbon emissions onto cloud providers doesn’t make them disappear. That’s why, for most, the answer to data sustainability lies closer to home: in the data center itself.
Unfortunately, when it comes to data center decarbonisation, many firms have been slow out of the gate. While 52% of UK respondents surveyed by Hitachi Vantara said that creating an eco-friendly data center was a top priority for the organization, almost half (49%) expected the carbon footprint of their data centre to either stay the same or increase over the next two years.
Turning pledges into action
For many firms in the UK, the next two years will prove critical as they jumpstart development of more sustainable data centers. Companies are under mounting pressure, from both internal and external forces, to get this right. Internally, most C-suite leaders have data sustainability on their radar, with 58% of UK organizations saying they will continue or plan to migrate data and workloads to energy-efficient cloud platform over the next two tears. Beyond just a moral obligation, many organizations (66%) are being propelled into action by new legislation and regulations, which continue to grow ever more rigorous and complex. In the EU, for example, the new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) will soon come into effect and is expected to impact around 50,000 companies by 2024, demanding more detailed reporting.
Clearly, there exists a discrepancy between firms’ commitments and their actions. Data center decarbonization is a priority, and yet progress for most is slow. Many firms point to inadequate access to sustainability data, as well as a lack of standardized metrics and measurement tools when this data is available, as hindering progress. Others simply lack the talent and expertise internally to deliver on their sustainability ambitions, a reflection of gaps in local market resource pools and a lack of corporate upskilling and hiring programs internally. For some, the issue originates within the upper echelons of the company, whereby adequate budget isn’t being allocated to sustainability initiatives, or sustainability strategies are lack lustre or non-existent.
Learning from the best
Hitachi Vantara’s survey identified those companies – ‘eco-data leaders’ – who are leagues ahead of others in their data center modernization journeys. So, what’s their secret? These eco-data leaders think differently about sustainability and its relationship to their business. They see sustainability as inextricably interwoven with business value, viewing it as an opportunity to grow their business, attract venture capital, meet customer expectations, and optimize costs – not just as a box to be ticked.
But they also act differently. These eco-data leaders often have distributed leadership responsibilities among the top tiers of their organisation, with a cross-section of senior leadership playing a larger role in sustainability decision-making. At the very top, the CEO is the vanguard of their sustainability programs, taking personal accountability for sustainability KPIs. They have the basics nailed down, with clear sustainability roadmaps in place and the budget needed to deliver on these pledges.
Finally, these eco-data leaders teach us that firms must move at the speed of innovation, not regulation. Businesses cannot rest on their laurels and wait for regulation to force their hand. Innovation must be at the heart of data center strategies as firms proactively pioneer new solutions to cut carbon emissions.