Why Data Centre Owners Want Carbon Laws Terminated

The data centre industry wants the government to embrace tech as a force for good when it comes to climate change. Time to sort fact from fiction, says Andrew Donoghue

In the dog days of summer you might, like me, find yourself with a bit more time on your hands than usual. Given the standard of the average British summer, spending all of it frolicking in the great outdoors isn’t always an option. Sitting down to watch a few sci-fi classics is one alternative – albeit a geeky one. But beware, rather than escapism, some of these films have a way of focusing the mind on real-world issues in an unexpected way.

In the dystopian imaginings of two of my favourite films, The Terminator and Blade Runner, irresponsible application of technology is to blame for ravaged landscapes and a distinct lack of anything warm and furry, or green and leafy for that matter. So rather than being immersed in cyborgs, guns and high-octane action, I found myself musing on the relationship between tech and the environment.

Avatar: Tech vs Environment

High-tech and the natural world just don’t mix, seems to be the message of a lot of sci-fi. In a head to head contest one is going to come off worse and, usually, it’s the green stuff that suffers. Most recently Avatar demonstrated this violent opposition of technology and natural habitat with primitive people defending their forest home from a tech-dependent human army. One of the key parts of the film involves a sacred tree being torched in the name of progress – a crude metaphor maybe but an effective one.

The irony of the environmental message at the heart of Avatar and the warnings of techno-meddling from films such as The Terminator, is that the films themselves are the product of technological advancements. Avatar is seen as the bleeding edge of 3D technology, with the TV industry pinning its hopes on the movie to drive the next wave of upgrades. Environmental groups have already pointed out the inherent contradiction that a film with an environmental message may potentially spark a tech-refresh with all its e-waste generating implications.

The relationship between technology and environmental sustainability is obviously more nuanced than popular culture would have us believe. The massive green elephant in the room is the whole rise of so-called clean technology and renewable energy – from wind turbines to hydrogen fuel cells – which are all dependent on new and innovative technology. Overhauling power grids and the way consumers monitor their energy use will save huge amounts of carbon. But this application of so-called smart meters and grids isn’t possible without upgrading existing infrastructure and rolling-out new technology. Counter-intuitively, to lessen the impact of tech on the environment we have to build more of it.

But another aspect to the complex relationship between the environment and technological progress is that technology – specifically IT – has the potential to not only become more sustainable through refinement but actually lessen the impact of other man-made activities. A power-efficient data centre which utilises renewable energy, such as the Other World Computing (OWC) facility in Woodstock Illinois, is not only inherently sustainable but the tools it could provide – email, web collaboration and video conferencing – replace the need for more carbon intensive activities such as air-travel.

The idea that IT can actually be an environmental force for good was raised this week by data centre specialist Migration Solutions. The organisation was voicing its concerns over the government’s recent energy policy which could see power costs rise by 40 percent for some businesses. If such price-rises came into effect, it might prompt some data centre operators to relocate their facilities to countries with more favourable energy policies, the organisation warned.

Migration Solutions along with other players in the data centre industry, are keen to point out the complex relationship between IT and the environment. Yes, data centres are heavy users of electricity and producers of carbon dioxide –  a report to the US congress back in 2006 found that 1.5 percent of national electricity demand came from energy consumption of data centres. But crucially, they can also help reduce emissions in other areas. “Information Technology (IT) uses two percent of the country’s electricity but it also provides many of the solutions that will reduce our domestic power consumption and carbon emissions,” said Migration’s boss Alex Rabbetts

Carbon Reduction Commitment

Vendor industry groups such as Intellect want this contribution to overall sustainability to be recognised by the government. Specifically, the organisaton has a campaign underway to make data centre operators a special case under the recently introduced Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). “The cross-sector energy efficiencies enabled by IT could deliver global emission savings of approximately 7.8 Gt carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2020 – equivalent to carbon savings five times larger than the total emissions from the entire IT sector, and to €600 billion of cost savings,” a recent Intellect report, Data Centres: The Backbone of the UK Economy, claims.

Whether the government will heed these claims is unclear. Specifically Intellect et al are pushing for a Carbon Change Agreement (CCA) as an answer and possible alternative to the strict rules laid down in the CRC. Given some of the anti-tech policies enacted by the coalition so far, it doesn’t seem likely that IT facilities will be given special dispensation.

At the end of the day it all depends on whether the powers-that-be can be persuaded to embrace the idea that IT could help to contribute to the goal it has set itself of becoming the greenest government in UK history. Alternatively, they might just decide the claims made by Intellect and the data centre industry are just so much science-fiction.