Maybe a tiny bit? Let me explain.
I have recently been working on a sustainability project in the property sector, and it quickly became apparent that access to real time, accurate data on energy, water, and waste usage will be critical to organisations achieving their sustainability goals and positively impacting climate change.
Recent EU Sustainable Finance Disclosures and Taxonomy Regulations will bring about a step change in many sectors with regards to their reporting requirements and the level of detail required. This isn’t a surprise and is consistent with the EU’s sustainable finance technical report that refers to the OECD’s model for responsible business conduct. If you consider the info-graphic you can see that at least 3 of the six steps require access to information or data.
Where’s the irony? The regulations will result in a material increase in the demand for data collection, storage and processing from all organisations that are either directly or indirectly effected by the legislation.
The majority of data is managed in data centres which have become one of the main culprits when it comes to carbon emissions. It is estimated that the industry of data centers is the fifth largest energy consumer in the world. The large consumption of energy is due to the need for permanent storage of data, and for cooling the servers and other equipment to maintain optimal operating temperatures.
Ireland is home to 55 of these data centres. ‘Host in Ireland’, estimated that in 2019 data centres represented 10% of Ireland’s total annual electricity use (and that was before COVID). To meet growing demand an additional 44 new data centres currently under construction or have secured planning permission. EirGrid calculates that, by 2028, data centres will be consuming 29 per cent of Ireland’s electricity (Irish Times, The true carbon cost of feeding the data centre monster).
Am I missing something here, or is this going to make our target of delivering a 30% reduction in GHGs by 2030 very difficult to achieve?
Eirgrid’s Smartgrid Dashboard tracks energy usage in Ireland, illustrating what proportion is available from renewable resources, i.e. wind. Their data clearly shows that despite progress Ireland is still some way off accessing 100% renewable energy, therefore every additional data centre built in Ireland will result in a significant increase in Ireland’s carbon foot-print.
I am not suggesting that the regulations are going to result in a massive increase in data centres, however they do compound rather than mitigate the problem. It seems to me that given the main objective of the regulations is to reduce GHGs, an attempt should have been made to address the challenge presented by energy hungry data centres. What has actually happened is the EU Commission have specifically made an exception in the Sustainable Finance Regulations for data centres that collect, and process data used for the purposes of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions! This is a direct quote from the final report from the sustainable technical group.
“Despite the almost negligible contribution to the economy, data driven solution for data collection, transmission and modelling of GHG emissions reductions-related information plays an important enabling role. Given the nature of the activity, no threshold are necessary.”
It will be interesting to see how that will work!
It does not have to be this way. I searched ‘green data centres’ in google scholar, searching for publications since 2020. There were 116,000! This is not my area of expertise, but solutions seem to involve a combination of efficiency measures, accessing local renewable energy sources and the redistribution of energy back to the grid. These solutions need to be incorporated at the design and construction phase.
Surely ‘green’ data centres should be mandatory? Certainly, consideration of carbon emissions needs to be part of any planning permission application process. The government and regulators in Ireland need to embrace the concept of the circular economy which recognises the entire life cycle of all economic activities when measuring the environmental impact.
Overall I am of the view that the regulations will initiate the level of change needed to address the climate crisis, however they are not perfect, and as we become ever more dependent on information technology the nettle of data centres is one that needs to be grasped an not sidestepped with a convenient exception!
You might be interested in my article – EU Taxonomy – Can ESG policies be credible?