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Taking action against the carbon cost of ICT

Gunnar Menzel
March 30, 2020

Data traffic threatens to become one of the leading sources of greenhouse gases, as detailed in Part 1 of this blog series. So, what can the ICT industry do about it?

Reducing the energy consumption of data centers is a great place to start. Precise figures are difficult to come by, but there are certainly millions of data centers in operation today – and the world’s biggest companies are, at least in part, data center operators. As we saw in Part 1, data centers are expected to account for 45% of the entire ICT industry’s carbon footprint in 2020.

Green grid

There are two sides to the problem – the energy used by data centers in their day-to-day operations, and the carbon cost of building the centers and the equipment they use.

Some of the world’s biggest data center operators are already committing to using only renewable energy for their operations. That’s a very positive step, but the key is to maximize the efficiency of power usage.

There’s already a widely accepted metric, Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) (ISO/IEC 30134-2:2016), for measuring this efficiency. And the good news is that it’s been heading in the right direction for years. In 2007 the data center industry average PUE was ~ 2.5. Today it is 1.6 (the theoretical ideal is a PUE of 1.0).

There is still much that can be done. Cooling systems that don’t use air conditioning (which could also save 100bn liters of water per year in the US alone), virtualization, intelligent workload balancing to reduce the number of operational servers during low-traffic hours, and building or converting existing centers into more efficient “hyperscale” data centers are examples.

The magic of Merlin

Capgemini was one of the first data center operators to adopt measures like these. Our Merlin data center achieved an astonishing PUE of 1.08 when it opened a decade ago, and it remains one of the world’s most efficient today.

Merlin is also powered exclusively by sustainable energy, uses flywheel technology instead of environmentally damaging batteries to store backup power, and adopted modular construction relying on 95% recycled materials.

Business value

The biggest and best hope for mitigating ICT carbon is for industry leaders to accept that offering environmental sustainability is a core business value. This has already started to happen. At the beginning of 2020 Microsoft pledged to remove all of the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. Amazon intends to go carbon neutral by 2040. Only when the majority of ICT companies see environmental sustainability as a core business value will we see a major positive impact.

This is part two of a three-part blog series. In part three I make a proposal to clarify the carbon cost of ICT for everyone.