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Antoinette Sandbach and Daniel Zeichner: Is staying online costing the Earth?

Antoinette Sandbach and Daniel Zeichner: Is staying online costing the Earth?
4 min read

We must ensure that the opportunities afforded by data centres are not offset by their negative impact on climate change, write Antoinette Sandbach and Daniel Zeichner

If Britain is to prosper in the 21st century, it is through embracing the digital economy and building upon its thriving tech sector. However, many will be unaware of the considerable energy demands that are needed to sustain our digital infrastructure. The government and Labour have both indicated their support for expanding fibre optic broadband through the Grand Challenge for AI and Data and the Universal Service Obligation respectively. These aim to cement the UK’s reputation as a world-class centre for technology innovation. Alongside these digital ambitions sit our legally binding targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The question is, can we do both?

The UK data centre sector is a spectacular success story: it has demonstrated rapid, sustained growth, without government assistance. Moreover, it enables growth in other sectors and demand is set to increase. However, it requires significant amounts of energy so unless it grows sustainably, it is a risk to our climate commitments.

What are data centres and why are they important?

Data centres house computers so they can process, manage, transmit and store data and connect to other digital equipment in businesses, houses, satellites etc. They are crucial for cloud computing, processing and streaming.

No data centres means no Netflix or emails on your phone; many things we now take for granted, such as booking a train on the move, would become much harder. Data centres are therefore crucial to the effective running of our lives and to the economy.

Do Data Centres pose a risk to climate change?

There is plenty of concern about how much energy data centres could use in the near future and the risk to our climate. There have been calls for us to reduce our dependence on technology as a result. However, from the recent report we co-chaired – Is Staying Online Costing the Earth? – a more complex picture emerged.

Despite data centre workload being forecast to triple by 2020, energy demand is expected to grow by only 3%. This is due to continuing efficiency gains from servers and cooling equipment. It is also important to consider how this energy is generated: Google, Apple and Facebook have committed to sourcing 100% of their data centres energy from renewable sources. This is welcome news, but others must follow suit.

There is still much work to do. Too often data centres are inefficient small-scale operations located in public and private sector organisations. In the public sector, 80% of data centres are small server rooms. We also need to gather better data on the private sector and how efficient their data centres are. Switching to cloud based or professionally run data centres can save both money and energy. So what is preventing the switch to more efficient data centres?

Next steps

There has been some innovative thinking in the public sector such as Crown Hosting Data Centres – a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and Ark Data Centres that offers more efficient and better value data centres to the UK public sector. However, the government needs to do more to drive through this change. Organisations in the public and private sector need to take advantage of these offers to enable growth that doesn’t increase emissions.

We need to support transparent procurement practices that allow government and others to see the impact that their choices will have on the environment. Without this it is too easy to make the wrong choice.

The first step is a conversation, like the rountable the APPGs on Climate Change and Data Analytics will hold this Wednesday.  We know the answers to some of the difficult issues raised, as do industry, academia and charities. Our aim is to ensure the government appreciates the importance of energy efficient data centres and embraces the opportunity to make progress on our climate change targets.  

Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge. Antoinette Sandbach is Conservative MP for Eddisbury 

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