Sustainable data centres from a life cycle perspective

First edition of a new series of data centre briefs delves into life cycle assessments of data centres and sustainability

February 27, 2020

Data centres have become key in supporting ICT services in modern societies, and with their growing use and importance comes an ever-growing carbon footprint.

In the first issue of the new Data Centre brief series, published by UNEP DTU Partnership’s Copenhagen Centre on Energy Efficiency, the question of how we can ensure environmentally sustainable data centres is analysed through the perspective of life cycle assessment.

Download the brief here.

Encompassing all activities

As the role of data centres keeps increasing in the future, so will concerns over their energy use and associated impacts on climate change.

However, a sole focus on reducing climate change related impacts arising from data centres’ operations can lead to overlook other relevant environmental problems stemming from other parts of the data centres’ life cycle.

A life cycle approach to analysing data centres encompasses all activities from the extraction of necessary raw materials, like metal ores, through the manufacture and installation of the data centres, their operations over their lifetimes, up to their decommissioning, recycling and disposal.

“The data industry should be the first interested to know about its own sustainability data. As a nascent industry, it has the opportunity to set high the sustainability benchmark without historical burdens from the past. Its pace of development is of such dynamism that it is critical to make right decisions on design, component choices and operations,” says Gabriela Prata Dias, Head of Strategy Business Models and Markets at UNEP DTU Partnership, and part of the team behind the new series of briefs.

Ensuring the most sustainable path

By including the entirety of data centre’s life cycle, it is possible to keep track of where the main impacts stem from in the value chain, meaning that, when taking decisions, like switching to new materials, equipment or designs to develop new data centres, stakeholders will be able to identify potential shifts that their decisions may induce.

Alexis Laurent is Associate Professor in the Quantitative Sustainability Assessment group, like UNEP DTU Partnership, a part DTU Management. He focuses on methodological development and application of life cycle assessment (LCA) and on development of life-cycle-based methods and solutions for quantifying environmental sustainability of large systems, like countries or sectors. Alexis is the lead author on the brief.

“For instance, changing the design of data centres to make them more energy-efficient might lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions during the operations, but may at the same time create new and relevant problems in the production of the data centre equipment. Failing to adopt a life cycle perspective would mean overlooking such potential burden-shifting and might therefore take us onto even less sustainable paths,” he says.

A demanding but rewarding approach

The data centre industry is a relatively new industry, with many technological challenges still to address. This may explain why sustainability has not been addressed comprehensively yet.

“The use of life cycle assessment enables quantifying a large spectrum of environmental impacts, and requires deep knowledge of the entire value chain of technologies like data centres, which could be challenging. Yet, its wide adoption is important as it provides a unique way to comprehensively assess environmental impacts and steer the industry towards sustainability,” says Alexis Laurent.

The intention of this brief is to reach out not only to the sustainability professionals but also to data centre developers and operators, to place focus on both reliability and response time of operation of data centres as well as its environmental footprint.

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