On days of extreme heat do we cool our data centres or cool our homes? Very soon this could be a very live question according to authors of a new report, IT & Data Centre Sustainability in Australia, released by Pure Storage and University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures.

In the wash-up from Chris Bowen’s sectoral emissions announcement on Tuesday, there’s been plenty of complaints about the lack of detail, and lots of chatter about the climate minister’s rejection of the previous government’s “fantasy” 2050 climate plan.

Industry, unions and climate activists will no doubt start ramping up their lobbing efforts about exactly what will be in the six specific net zero plans for electricity and energy, industry, the built environment, agriculture and land, transport, and resources. 

But as the focus – and action – on reducing carbon emissions in these sectors accelerate, one sector was left off the list despite the predictions it could blow out our global carbon budget: digital and IT.

We’re not just talking about data centres, although they are alarming users of electricity. We’re talking about the manufacture of phones, laptops and other digital devices, and the energy used to mine and refine the metals and rare earths needed to make those devices.

French investigative journalist Guillaume Pitron calls it the “dark cloud” that hangs over us. In a two-year investigation of our so-called dematerialised world, Pitron details the huge environmental cost associated with digital technology and data centres.

It’s remained so well-hidden from most of us, he argues, because tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have greenwashed their environmental footprints.

Even the term “cloud” is ambiguous, says Pitron, because of its association with the natural world. It blurs our understanding of where digital documents are stored: not in some cyber netherworld but on the tens of millions of servers housed in thousands of data centres around the world.

And what about those gorgeous smartphones we all love? Designed to look beautiful, and feel smooth in our hands, like some exotic objet d’art. How could something that stylish be bad for us or the environment? But the smart phone’s minimalist design doesn’t mean it has a minimalist impact on the planet.

“It is a complete illusion,” Pitron told ABC journalist Natasha Mitchell in a recent interview about his new book The Dark Cloud: how the digital world is costing the earth.

Every click, every upload, every email we send has a cost, he says. The internet manifesto of the 1990s that proclaimed this amazing technology would free us from the world’s limitations and allow us to operate in a dematerialised, virtual world was a con job.

The confusion around energy and the internet extends to data centres. Much of the energy used is not to run the centres but to cool them, according to a new report released just as Chris Bowen addressed the Australian Clean Energy Summit in Sydney on Tuesday.

The heat generated inside these buildings is one of the reasons why many operators build data centres in Ireland where temperatures are lower than other parts of Europe, according to data storage group Pure Storage.  And, it’s why Facebook in 2013 built its first data centre outside the US in Luleå, northern Sweden, so that it could cool itself using the freezing outside air.

The report, IT & Data Centre Sustainability in Australia, written by Pure Storage and UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, found that Australia is one of the most densely served economies by data centres per capita, with revenue in the data centre market forecast in Australia to pass US$5 billion (A$7.4 billion) this year.

The report raises questions about how well equipped Australian data centres are to manage the onset of El Niño and its dryer, hotter weather. It also raises the possibility that increased energy demand by our data centres could destabilise Australia’s energy grid (which is already happening in Ireland). 

The authors ask a crucial question: on days of extreme heat do we cool our data centres or cool our homes?

An alarming lack of awareness

The report found that overall, Australian businesses exhibited an alarming lack of engagement with the growing level of carbon emissions caused by IT and data centres. 

A survey of more than 100 sustainability managers in April and May this year found that many of them believe they can’t meet their sustainability goals without reducing IT and data centre energy use, but they don’t have the detailed data to make those decisions. 

It showed, among other things, that although many Australian organisations knew they needed to address the sustainability of data centres only nine per cent were fully considering doing so.

Only 15 per cent of respondents thought about sustainability when it came to procuring data centre service providers; 29 per cent did not consider data centre energy consumption at all. 

The rapid growth of Australia’s data centre industry comes at a time of increasing climate risks, and an unprecedented level of focus from regulators, investors and consumers about how companies reduce emissions, the authors noted. 

“It should therefore be concerning that Australian organisations appear to not be taking the steps necessary to incorporate data centre and IT related emissions into account when managing their environmental, social and governance and carbon emissions reduction programs,” they concluded. 

“As data centre related energy demands rise, Australian businesses and policy makers need to avoid the risk of adding to the instability of the country’s energy grid, as has been the case in other jurisdictions that have a high density of data centre penetration.”

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  1. Has anyone done any research on the difference between energy use of a business having their server inhouse as opposed to having it in a data centre where it is sold as being more energy efficient to do so?