Data that doesn't cost the Earth: a decade of progress

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The first in a series of blogs for data center users on the key building blocks for sustainable colocation; the state of the industry, key drivers and the most important areas of focus to ensure progress towards long-term data center and IT sustainability.

February 22, 20234 mins
Data That Doesn't Cost The Earth: A Decade of Progress - Unlocked lock on a data table with green checkmark on it

The first in a series of blogs for data center users on the key building blocks for sustainable colocation; the state of the industry, key drivers and the most important areas of focus to ensure progress towards long-term data center and IT sustainability.

Chris Pennington, Director Environmental Sustainability, Iron Mountain Data Centers (IMDC)


Data centers are getting serious about sustainability. Ten years ago their services were sold based on three promises – security, uptime, and temperature. Since then, providers have added a stack of new propositions, all of them supporting sustainability: efficiency; renewable power; responsible water usage; and total decarbonization.

The strides that the industry has taken are impressive, particularly those made by the world’s major cloud service providers. Amazon was a late starter but 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 percent of its annual electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy. And Microsoft has been doing the same thing for twice as long. All the leading hyperscalers run highly energy-efficient data centers are focused on becoming net positive. The colocation industry has also achieved spectacular impact reductions in terms of efficiency, water, clean energy, and decarbonization. But with a mixed set of customers running different hardware it is harder for colocation businesses to achieve the same levels of efficiency as the hyperscale clouds.

As data has shifted from inefficient legacy on-premises data centers to specialist colocation and cloud businesses, energy requirements for computing have dropped dramatically, setting the stage for a more sustainable digital future. 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 intensity levels are actually getting better. According to the IEA, between 2015 and 2021 Internet traffic rose by 440% and data center workloads by 260%, while data center energy usage rose by only 10 to 60%.


Why did the industry do this? There are three key external drivers which are becoming more important as each year passes:


The expansion of the data center industry will depend on its ability to demonstrate a positive impact on local communities and infrastructure, as opposed to being a burden. As the Covid-19 lockdown demonstrated, it is now possible to run aspects of many businesses online, significantly reducing travel and office emissions. But this new digital world has a physical footprint in terms of emissions from electricity generation - an average of 36 g CO2 equivalent per MB according to the Climate Neutral Group’s best estimate, and use of precious water supplies. Worldwide, it is estimated that data centers currently consume about 3% of global electricity and account for around 2% of total GHG emissions. And the number of data centers is only getting larger, leaving no room for complacency.

Voluntary codes of conduct are now giving way to direct regulation at national and regional levels, with regulations such as US Executive Order 13834 and the upcoming EU Data Center Directive setting the bar higher. Data center construction has been put on hold in places as diverse as Dublin, Amsterdam, Capetown and Singapore. Maximum footprints, minimum efficiency levels and obligatory sharing of excess heat are among the regulations that are emerging. There will no doubt be more, and they will vary from one region to another, so the best policy for data center owners is either tackling local regulations on a case-by-case basis, or keeping a clear step ahead by exceeding all regulatory requirements across their entire footprint.


Businesses are getting more serious about sustainability. In response to the climate crisis, companies have started to set aggressive climate goals, and the number of businesses committed to these targets is growing faster than ever. Last year more than 13,000 companies - representing over 64% of global market capitalization and nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions - disclosed their emissions through what used to be known as the Carbon Disclosure Project (now CDP). More than 3,000 businesses and financial institutions are now working with the Science Based Targets initiative to reduce their emissions in line with climate science. According to Accenture 44% of CEOs are already planning net-zero futures for their organizations.

As data centers have moved from less efficient, on-premise facilities to modern colocation and cloud providers, businesses have still retained their energy use as part of their own environmental footprint. Out of sight isn’t out of mind, or out of scope when it comes to environmental reporting. Data center solution providers therefore need to provide environments that can support the aggressive corporate goals for environmental performance that clients are setting.


When faced with a need to consume vast amounts of resources (electricity) and a customer base eager to support the fight against climate change, it quickly becomes a business imperative to ensure we’re doing all we can to eliminate waste, support decarbonization of the grid and conserve limited resources like water and raw materials for IT equipment. Within our client base it is reassuring to see that the biggest, most successful companies are leading the climate charge, and in time we believe that everyone will follow.

In a world where digital transformation is accelerating across all sectors, the businesses that provide the platform for that transformation - compute power and connectivity - become increasingly mission-critical. They must be trustworthy long-term partners. Proactively tackling compliance and climate challenges have become increasingly important factors when companies choose where their data lives. For providers, supporting these customer needs is simply good business practice.


That’s the overview. On the ground, decarbonization is more complex. Sustainability can only be improved through collaboration across the industry and with governments and standards organisations, and through thousands of tiny and carefully monitored step-changes.

It is important for our customers to understand how this works. Whether you are a board member, a shareholder, working on ESG/corporate reporting, ICT operations, or another side of the business, there is much more worth knowing in order to have a working knowledge of where and how sustainability principles can be applied to or shared across your business.

Over the next few months, we will post a series of blogs looking at each of these areas in more depth; how the industry is doing, what best practices to look out for, and how these efforts can be incorporated into data processing measurement.

We will look at

  • Efficiency & Operations (improving power, water and carbon usage effectiveness)
  • Renewables (and why all renewables are far from equal),
  • Embodied Impact (emissions generated by buildings, equipment)
  • Planning to Practice (resources, reporting and next steps)


I hope you have found this useful. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.