Environmental Sustainability Metrics Are Needed To Help Businesses Bolster Transparency

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Environmental sustainability is about protecting natural resources for future generations. Whether just at beginning stages or far along on the sustainability spectrum, most data center operators have initiatives around sustainability. Spurred by the rising information processing demands of AI and machine learning, the data center industry is tasked with reducing its environmental impact to net zero to meet global climate pledges. In response, Schneider Electric, a digital and electric solutions firm, has revised a whitepaper it first issued in 2021, based on customer and industry association feedback it had sought. The refined standardized environmental sustainability metrics are a framework that offers critical business updates and timely insights.

Making progress on environmental sustainability goals as an industry means adopting standardized metrics for measurement. Determining which environmental sustainability metrics a data center business should track is one of the most important issues it faces. Companies must make these metrics well understood throughout the market and the data center industry, and they must also publicly and regularly report on them for transparency.

Making progress on environmental sustainability goals as an industry means adopting standardized metrics for measurement, making these metrics well understood throughout the market and the data center industry, and publicly reporting them regularly — whether that means semi-annually or annually or another accepted gauge of transparency.

But why should data center operators use a standard set of sustainability metrics?

Without standards, data center operators and those wishing to evaluate data center performance, such as investors, regulators, and employees, face two significant challenges:

  • Benchmarking: When organizations use different metrics, it’s difficult to compare data center performance. Without benchmarking, it’s difficult to establish common criteria and establish leaders that a data center operator can compare against or aspire to. In short, standardized metrics provide a ledger for comparison and benchmarking for companies that aspire to differentiate through sustainability.
  • Alignment: Lack of standard metrics can make it difficult to identify organizational discrepancies between divisions / operating units and executive management functions (CEO, CFO, COO and CSO – chief sustainability officer). Standardized environmental metrics are needed to set goals & strategies, know where to improve, know what to prioritize, and to show continuous progress. All together, standards ensure all players are using the same rulebook.

Metrics-driven transparency can add value internally by driving sustainability improvements and externally by increasing stakeholder confidence and competitiveness. Standardizing these metrics, the company says, will help accelerate adoption, improve benchmarking, and push sustainability progress within the industry.

Focusing on 28 key sustainability metrics that apply to a data center across 5 metric categories, the whitepaper offers a holistic approach to addressing environmental sustainability.

Energy: The projected future growth of total data center energy consumption combined with growing distributed renewable energy supply requires that data center operators have a better understanding of their energy sources. Measuring energy from all sources will determine the carbon intensity of a data center’s energy mix and help operators become more sustainable. Reporting energy consumption, energy efficiency, and renewable energy use is important for data center operators to show their progress on efforts to minimize their carbon footprint.

Greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions: CO2 and other gases such as CH4, PFCs, and HFCs are classified as greenhouse gases (GHGs). These GHG emissions, also referred to as “carbon emissions,” are a major contributor to climate change and one of the most pressing issues facing society today. According to GHG Protocol and ISO 14064, there are 3 categories of GHG emissions: Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3. Reporting GHG emissions is important for data center operators to show their efforts on controlling climate change across these scopes.

Water: Water shortages are becoming a serious problem in many regions. It’s important to understand water use within a data center and at power plants. Decreasing water usage is a focus area for many data center operators and local jurisdictions. There are different types of technologies (e.g., dry cooler with adiabatic evaporation, liquid cooling) that are being implemented to reduce direct water usage. As a result, data centers are using less water on average than they used to. Operators are also investing in water replenishment programs to save water indirectly. Reporting water usage and savings is becoming more important as a part of overall sustainability goals.

Waste: Data centers are challenged with a unique waste profile compared to other industrial operations. In order to meet circularity goals and targets, data center operators need to understand their waste profile (especially E-waste and batteries) with tailored data center metrics. Minimizing waste from the supply chain and diverting it out of landfills through reuse and recycling is a key strategy for environmental sustainability. Circular economy design methodologies and processes support improvements in this area. Reporting waste generation and diversion is emerging in importance for data center operators and is likely to become commonplace in the near future.

Local ecosystem: Data centers have direct and indirect impact on the local ecosystem biodiversity including land, sound level, and species impacts. For example, data centers have a direct impact on the land they are built upon and an indirect land impact from their supply chain. Measuring the impacts to land are common in industries like mining but are new to the data center industry. The HVAC equipment (e.g., cooling towers, dry coolers, ducts) and diesel gensets in a data center can produce high levels of noise, which draw attention from local jurisdictions. Greenfield data center construction also impacts the quantity and diversity of species around it. Reporting the impact on the local ecosystem is also emerging in importance for data center operators and likely to become commonplace in the near future.

Commenting on the importance of establishing standard benchmarks, Vlad Gabalov, Director at Omdia, head of the Cloud and Data Research Practice explains, “Measuring sustainability in data centers is not just an option, it’s a responsibility we owe to our planet and future generations. By quantifying our environmental impact, we empower ourselves to make informed decisions that lead to meaningful change. However, isolated efforts are not enough. To truly drive progress across the industry, we must unite under a standardized framework. This framework will not only guide our actions but also enable us to compare, learn, and innovate collectively. Through measurement and  standardization, we can pave the way for a greener, more sustainable digital future.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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