With a few years left to minimize the impact of climate change, humanity is faced with one of the greatest challenges in history. We are forced to reanalyze every wheel of the modern economy to make the way we live more sustainable.

Even with our current technology, we are unable to accurately determine the possible outcome, not to mention looming danger, that climate change will bring. And while data centers are often referred to as the backbone of the digital world, and touted as a potential solution to the energy crisis, the industry is also a contributor to climate change.

While the topic of sustainability and energy efficiency did gain traction over the last few years, the operators focus remains more on the enormous demand for IT space. In order to put sustainability and energy efficiency on the agenda in the data center industry we need to involve the government, the operators and the consumers.

Instead of governments from various countries trying to regulate the energy efficiency and sustainability of data centers, they seem to compete with each other to provide the most lucrative conditions for operators to settle within their regions.

Rather than implementing programs that the operators have to comply to, standards are provided that are written as recommendations, or the programs are not tailored for data centers. Those programs that are used, only require voluntary participation.

One would like to see governments implement stricter laws in terms of compliance to sustainability standards in the data center industry.

Making business sense

Business is business, if the numbers don’t add up you can’t remain in the market. While some operators perceive sustainability and energy efficiency as a cost, it should be perceived as a competitive edge.

Yes, initial investment might raise operational costs in the short-term, but in the long-run it will allow for larger profit margins and lower operational costs. The four R’s of sustainability: reduce; reuse; recycle and recover should be applied in all decisions and processes when it comes to data centers.

For example:

Reduce: Using a site with natural cooling, such as mines to reduce traditional cooling methods, without impacting too strongly on the ecosystem.

Reuse: Reuse the excessive hot air through heat pumps to distribute heat to rural areas.

Recycle: Recycle old server equipment.

Recover: Use rainwater for adiabatic cooling rather than drinking/tap water.

Unfortunately, a common practice in the industry among operators is to greenwash, whereby to lower their carbon footprint, operators just buy green energy, rather than improving the energy efficiency of the overall facility. This often means that other important areas such as water usage get left out of the sustainability conversation.

Operators should seek to align the sustainability demand of the public with their economic interests, leaving behind a minimal operational footprint, but not only in terms of carbon dioxide.

Where the government and supply fail to be effective in terms of sustainability, consumers may exert pressure on both the government and operators. It should be common practice for businesses that plan to be customers of colocation data centers to demand sustainability and energy efficiency from their operators.

The local population of cities where data centers are located should also demand minimal water usage from these facilities. A market will always form where supply meets demand, therefore it is also the responsibility of the consumers to help ensure governments and operators are making sustainable practice a priority.

We can no longer afford to sit idly and hope the world changes for the better. Sustainability shouldn’t just be used to ‘green’ a brand’s image; rather it should be implemented as something mandatory, and urgent.

And there are efforts from standard organizations (i.e., EN 50600 from Cenelec) as well as inspection companies (i.e., TSE.STANDARD from TÜViT) to provide the appropriate instruments to achieve this.

Business will always be focused on the bottom line, but it does not prevent operators from seeking alignment with sustainability goals from which they stand to profit from in the future. And if both of the above fail? It will be up to the consumer to demand that sustainability.