November 6, 2023

We Are Trying to Tackle Climate Change Over Here – Can all Other Sustainability Problems Please Wait?

Tackling climate change in business

In Sweden we are famously good at queuing: we queue to get onboard the bus and at the check-out in the supermarket. One thing at a time, patiently waiting in line seems to suit us. Can this also be applied to some of the big, existential challenges that face us? When it comes to fighting climate change, do other sustainability problems have to get in line and wait their turn?

On the day this blog is published, in just 6 years and 56 days we have to reach net zero emissions if we are going to achieve the target of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Add to that record high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, sea levels rising by 26 centimeters since 1880, and 30% of the polar ice caps having disappeared since 1970. As there is overwhelming evidence that we must act quickly, there is increasing support from both businesses and governments to decrease the negative climate impact that we have as societies, companies, and individuals.

Currently 70 countries have committed to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, covering 76% of global greenhouse gas emissions. More than 3000 companies are also engaging with the Science-Based Targets initiative to set ambitious climate targets in line with the latest climate science, including Tele2, which has committed to net zero emissions by 2035. At the same time, we run the risk of creating new sustainability problems in our attempts to reduce our negative impact on the climate. This could both be negative environmental impact, for instance increased use of various resources, such as raw materials or energy, or negative social impact, for instance on working conditions somewhere along our global value chains, such as occupational health and safety for workers or the use of child labor.

For businesses, data centers are essential to powering smart IoT solutions that enable the shift to more sustainable business practices, such as video conferencing or smart energy systems. At the same time, the entire global IT industry adds up to ~2% of GHG emissions; 50% from the manufacturing of IT equipment and the rest from energy expelled from equipment and data centers.

Erik Wottrich Head of Sustainability – Tele2

As the need for data centers continues to grow, so will the energy consumption. For instance, the International Energy Association estimates that in Denmark the energy consumption for data centers will increase six times by 2030 and will by then account for almost 15% of the country’s total energy consumption.

This presents us with a problem that is becoming increasingly common as sustainability and sustainable business practices are gaining momentum: goal conflicts. This is not new to sustainability, and it is not unique to sustainability. Societies, companies, and individuals face goal conflicts every day. Should society invest more in healthcare or schooling? Should companies invest more in R&D or in upskilling employees? How do we weigh and value different aspects of these conflicting goals? And what kind and what level of negative impact can we tolerate?

This brings us to an axiom for sustainable business: “increase positive environmental impact, decrease negative social impact while growing the business”. When that is applied to our industry, we have to ensure that data centers are run and managed in a way that decreases their negative impact on people and the planet, so that we can harness the effect for sustainable transition that they can provide.

Let me be clear, data centers are not sustainable, and will not be sustainable for many years to come. However, the output that we can get from data centers is so valuable in enabling a transition for businesses and societies to become more sustainable through for instance smart cities, smart energy, smart working, smart transport, smart agriculture, and smart manufacturing, that the trade-off will be worth it. Having said that, it does not mean that we have carte blanche to do business-as-usual in data centers. We must do everything we can to make sure that we run data centers that are more sustainable than those of the past (and present). We do that by using 100% renewable energy, employing efforts to increase energy efficiency, aggregating hardware to reap rewards of large scale operations, using free-cooling instead of cooling systems using refrigerants, using excess heat on-site or provide it to district heating systems, and at the end of the useful life of hardware ensure that it is re-used, refurbished, reconditioned or, if none of that is possible, broken down into components and recycled to decrease the extraction of new raw materials in nature.

Innovative technology based on connectivity will be one of the greatest enablers in ensuring that we can tackle climate change. We just have to make sure to minimize the underlying negative impacts on people and planet that this technology may have. That way we can manage one of the great goal conflicts that faces our industry today, so that we can tackle climate change without having to ask other sustainability problems to wait in line.

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