Tom Lawler. Chief Executive of the US tech advocacy collective the Digital Climate Alliance explains how the group is working to arm the buyers of cloud and datacentre services with data, and to educate and inform public policy from city level all the way through to federal government.
The last few days have been all go for stakeholders in Team Humanity. The sixth and final IPCC Report states that the hope of "keeping 1.5 alive" has already diminished, and that overshoot of 1.5C is almost certain. We must hasten the transition to Net Zero if we're to stand any chance of averting the most catastrophic scenarios in our collective future.
What the United States does is going to be critical in determining the speed of that transition, and last week also saw the US Tech for Climate Action conference which brought together city, state and federal representatives and global businesses to promote the agenda of elevating the role of technology in reaching Net Zero.
Hosting a panel on datacentre sustainability at the conference and releasing an accompanying white paper was the coalition of global tech companies, Digital Climate Alliance. The coalition advocates for sustainable technology and makes recommendations for businesses, legislators and public policy makers. The green datacentres panel discussed some of the practices companies are taking to make datacentres more energy efficient and resource conscious, and opportunities for the federal government to develop policies which encourage data centre sustainability.
Tom Lawler, Chief Executive of the Digital Climate Alliance comments on its aims:
"We launched in 2019 and our first white paper centred on how we reduce the footprint of technology but also increase the handprint of technology acting as that enabler of further climate action."
One of the biggest challenges that enterprises face when assessing their options for cloud infrastructure, is the difficulty of making comparisons between different service providers.
"We make various recommendations on this," says Lawler. "For all ESG reporting we need much more transparency and standardisation. We need comparability across the sector, apples to apples. You should be able to see who's doing well, who's not and why. Right now, globally from a climate action and sustainability perspective most of us are relying on voluntary actions to get us to the goals we have. None of the government policies are strong enough or driving enough action."
Lawler reels off a string of climate advocacy bodies such asWe Mean Business, We're Still In It, and the UN Race to Zero and points out that all of them are asking enterprise to do more than it is legally obliged to do.
"The challenge in that is, there's plenty of folks that will say they did more than they had to when they probably didn't. There's plenty of greenwashing and people hiding and obscuring what they do so they can get a little pat on the back and everybody can feel good about it."
"Getting good data, meaningful data, comparable data that is transparent is so important. The hyperscalers are innovating and spending money on renewables and I don't think it's in the interest of just greenwashing. Sure, they want to make money and then they want to feel good about themselves and be able to talk to customers about sustainability but this isn't about calling people out. It's about giving people a better roadmap for what meaningful action is."
Power to the People
The other focus is to try to skill up the relevant officials in cities so that when a hyperscaler proposes to build a datacentre in their city, they know what constructive line of questioning to take. It's becoming more and more of an issue as residents in the US and at several sites in Europe object object to the construction of datacentres, or in the case of North Virginia, more datacentres, in their locale. Instead of flat-out objections on principle which are eventually likely to be overturned by highly trained armies of lawyers, Lawler promotes a pragmatic approach to challenge hyperscalers to raise their game for the benefit of everyone.
"They should be asking questions like what are their options for backup power? There are micro grids available. You don't have to install banks of diesel generators. What are your battery options? Why are you using potable water for cooling? You can ask all these questions and drive people to go above and beyond. Ideally, make a requirement. Let's set some performance standards as Singapore has done."
The most recent white paper notes that the energy efficiency of datacentres has improved hugely over the last 15 years, driven by the improving efficiency of the hardware itself. Certainly the exponential growth in internet traffic hasn't been closely tracked by a corresponding increase in energy consumption. The paper states that global datacentre energy consumption changed very little between 2010 and 2020, citing figures provided by the IEA. It would be interesting to see if that line ticks upwards after 2020 given how much the pace of digitisation accelerated in the pandemic. Certainly, Lawler isn't convinced that enough people in the industry, and also in the public decision making realm have really got their heads around what's coming down the line.
"Take all the digitisation and IoT of the recent years and then add on generative AI, machine learning, Blockchain. Don't even think about Bitcoin. Utilisation of datacentres has been able to keep up at least in terms of energy efficiency and use so far, but it's not going to be able to keep up with the next big wave. The tidal wave isn't here yet but we need guard rails in place. We have to start pushing for performance measures before it takes over."