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Data centres’ impactful role in supporting sustainability: A decade of progress

By , Director of Energy & Sustainability at Iron Mountain Data Centres
Africa , 26 Apr 2023
Chris Pennington, Director of Energy & Sustainability at Iron Mountain Data Centres.
Chris Pennington, Director of Energy & Sustainability at Iron Mountain Data Centres.

Africa’s cloud computing and datacentre industries are growing with hyperscalers already operating major datacentres on the continent, while the colocation market is forecasted to grow by a further 25% by 2023, according to a study by Xalam Analytics.

Organisations are embracing cloud computing and more growth is expected this year, according to the Cloud in Africa 2023 study by World Wide Worx. The study found that the majority of enterprises are planning to increase investment in cloud services in 2023 to benefit from improved security, customer service, business efficiency and scalability.

This growth brings into focus the topic of sustainability and the role the data centre and colocation industries can play in supporting it by reducing their carbon footprint. Data centres are getting serious about sustainability and over the past few years providers have added a stack of new propositions, many of them supporting sustainability; efficiency; renewable power; responsible water usage; with the aim of total decarbonisation.

The strides that the industry has taken are impressive, particularly those made by the world’s major cloud service providers. Amazon, for example, is now the world’s largest purchaser of green energy and is aiming for 100% renewable power by 2025. For the last five years, Google has matched 100% of its annual electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy. All the leading hyperscalers run highly energy-efficient datacentres and are focused on becoming net positive. 

The colocation industry has also achieved spectacular reductions in terms of efficiency, water, clean energy, and decarbonisation. However, but with a mix of customers all running their own IT infrastructure set up, colocation providers can struggle to achieve the same levels of efficiency as the hyperscalers, who run a homogeneous set of infrastructure through entire datacentres. However, operators can work collaboratively with customers to ensure they are using the most efficient racks possible.

As data has shifted from inefficient legacy facilities to specialist colocation and cloud businesses, energy requirements have dropped dramatically. The industry’s shift to renewables has also had a huge impact. So much so that, despite the exponential growth in ICT demand, power usage and emission levels have not risen proportionally. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), worldwide internet traffic rose by 440% between 2015 and 2021, with datacentre workloads increasing by 260%. 

Locally, internet traffic travelling through the country’s largest internet exchange, NAPAfrica, has jumped by over 500 000% in just over a decade, from 532Mbps in 2012 to 2.9Tbps in 2022. Comparatively, global datacentre energy usage only increased between 10% and 60%. Despite efficiency improvements over the last few years, faster progress must be made if the industry is serious about cutting emissions and achieving net-zero.

But what is driving the industry to do this? There are three key drivers which are becoming increasingly important as time goes on: growing regulation, growing customer demand for more sustainable solutions, and the fact that it’s good for business and, equally important, the planet.

Growing regulatory constraints

The expansion of the datacentre industry will depend on its ability to demonstrate a positive impact on local communities and infrastructure, as opposed to being a burden. As the pandemic demonstrated, adopting hybrid working patterns can significantly reduce the emissions associated with commuting into offices, but this new digital world has a vast carbon footprint from electricity generation – an average of 36g CO2 equivalent per MB according to Climate Neutral Group’s best estimates, alongside significant water consumption. Worldwide, it is estimated that datacentres consume about 3% of global electricity and account for around 2% of total GHG emissions. These numbers are only increasing, leaving no room for complacency.

Voluntary codes of conduct are now giving way to direct regulation at national and regional levels, with environmental performance legislation in the US and the upcoming EU Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in Data Centres setting the bar far higher. 

Datacentre construction has – at various points in recent years – been put on hold by governments in countries including The Netherlands, Ireland, and Singapore. Maximum footprints, minimum efficiency levels, and obligatory sharing of waste heat are among the new requirements, with more expected, depending on each region’s needs. Datacentre operators must therefore stay a step ahead, by exceeding all regulatory requirements across their entire ecosystem.

Supporting clients’ sustainability goals makes good business sense

Businesses are getting more serious about sustainability. In response to the climate crisis, companies have started setting aggressive climate goals and the number of businesses committed to these targets is growing faster than ever.

According to BCG, the sustainability movement that has swept the corporate world in advanced economies is now spilling over into emerging markets. Its research indicates that emerging market companies, including South African companies, are responding to intensifying pressure locally and abroad from consumers, employees, trading partners, investors, and regulators to back their green commitments with verifiable actions. These actions can strengthen companies’ access to international markets, lower their cost of capital, and improve their ability to secure and retain talent.

As an industry that supports our clients’ critical data and infrastructure needs, we play an important role in providing solutions that help companies achieve these expanding goals.

The next decade will be critical in the battle against climate change, and datacentres can play a unique and impactful role in supporting positive change. Sustainability can only be improved through cross-industry collaboration with governments, standard-setting bodies, and customers, through thousands of tiny and carefully monitored step-changes. 

Critically, tech companies have a responsibility to educate their customers on the environmental impact of digitalisation and their data storage, so together, they can consume less, even if there’s a need to store more. 

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