Decarbonising Data The climate impacts of the tech sector

Demand for data is rising significantly as more of the world embraces digital and we see increased adoption of cloud, IoT devices and emerging use cases for AI. To really understand future trends, potential impacts and how companies can best prepare we held an event at London Tech Week focusing on the energy and carbon impact of the sector.

A clip to the presentation, slides and a summary of each presentation are provided below and we encourage all companies to learn from peers and to examine how they can adapt science based targets and net zero emission pathways. To learn how techUK can help with this please email Susanne.Baker@techUK.org

The tech sector’s carbon footprint - Jens Malmodin, Ericsson

  • Having a clear definition of what counts as ‘the tech sector’ is important. Boundaries are blurring as more sectors embrace digital.
  • ICT devices, networks and data centres has been the traditional scope of the tech sector, but this has evolved to include smart TVs and media streaming and could look at wider electronics in buildings and bitcoin.
  • In entertainment and media, there has been a decrease in energy use due to a shift to more efficient devices and better eco-design.
  • Jens’ research has indicated ICT carbon footprint is 1.3% of the global total.
  • Data consumption will grow by a factor or 5, and electricity use will grow, but forecasting a 50% carbon footprint reduction. Overall embedded emissions in devices account for the largest share.
  • Data volumes and electricity use do not follow the same growth paths. During Covid-19 GSMA members said as data traffic grew by 50% there was no increase in electricity usage by networks.

Global tech energy trends - George Kamiya, Emerging Technologies Analyst, International Energy Agency

  • Internet traffic has grown rapidly in recent years, leading to concerns about a similar increase in energy use and carbon emissions. However, since 2010, data centre energy use has only increased by 3% (200 TWh in 2019, or ~1% of global electricity use), despite a 12-fold increase in internet traffic and 7.5-fold increase in data centre demand. This is the result of two major drivers of efficiency: efficiency of computing and data transmission doubling every 2-3 years, along with a major shift from smaller, less efficient data centres to much more efficient cloud and hyperscale data centres.
  • Data centre operators and other ICT companies are the biggest corporate buyers of renewable energy, accounting for about half of corporate renewable energy procurement. Several large companies are already purchasing as much renewable energy as they consume. Further efforts are needed to fully decarbonise (e.g. matching supply and demand for time and location, decarbonising the supply chain, etc.).
  • The environmental impact of streaming video has also raised public concerns, but initial estimates have been fact-checked and determined to be at least 30-60 times too high.
  • Home working has reduced energy use from commuting and commercial buildings, but increased energy use in homes. Over the longer term, more permanent home working could lead to structural changes that could increase energy use overall (e.g. urban sprawl, larger homes), without sound planning and policy.
  • Long term trends on ICT energy use hinge on further growth in data demand vs. further efficiency gains (or slowdown). There are also unknowns with emerging technologies such as blockchain, AI, 5G, IoT and AR/VR, including rebound effects and impacts on other sectors (e.g. autonomous vehicles).
  • To meet climate targets, we need strong climate and energy policies to rapidly decarbonise all sectors by scaling up all clean energy technologies and measures (e.g. renewables, efficiency, electrification, CCUS). Net zero requires huge levels of innovation too, where digital technologies could play an important role.

A low carbon roadmap for the tech sector - Andie Stephens, Associate Director, Carbon Trust

  • The Carbon Trust has been working with the ITU, GSMA and GeSI to develop an emissions reduction pathway in line with the Paris Agreement. The Science Based Target is deliberately challenging and goes significantly beyond just switching to renewables.
  • The pathway requires a 50% reduction in emissions between 2020–30 and for firms this means switching to 100% renewables, replacing HFC cooling with low carbon alternatives, phasing out diesel generators, electric vehicle fleets and low carbon heating.
  • Fixed mobile networks need to reduce by 62%, mobile network operators 45% and data centres 53%. This however only looks at Scope 1 and 2 emissions.
  • The pathway for digital device manufacturers is still being developed and will be available later this year.
  • A large number of tech firms are setting SBTs and aligning to a 1.5 degrees pathway.
  • For those looking to set SBTs, the ITU-T L.140 is a standard for setting a reduction pathway and both the Science Based Targets Initiative and GSMA published guidance documents.

Tech Sector Leadership in the Race to Zero Emissions - Steve Martineau, Mobile & ICT Lead, COP26 Climate Champions

  • Race to Zero is a global campaign to rally leadership from businesses, places and investors to support a resilient, zero carbon recovery and members are committed to net zero by 2050.
  • At the time of presenting, 449 cities, 21 regions, 995 businesses, 38 investors and 505 universities are members and they must 1) make a pledge 3) produce a plan 3) proceed with the plan and 4) publish what they have achieved.
  • By COP 26 the aim is to have 50% of emissions and 75% of global GDP pledging to net zero.
  • Tech can enable decarbonisation 10x more than its own footprint, but must also look to decarbonise its own footprint.
  • Companies can join Race to Zero by setting Science Based Targets and commit to net zero emissions. Interested companies should contact the UN Global Compact.

Amazon Web Services – a case study: Jake Oster, Head of Energy and Environment Policy, EMEA at AWS

  • Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge in 2019, a commitment by signatories to be net zero carbon by 2040. 11 companies have already signed The Climate Pledge and others are invited to join the journey.
  • The Climate Pledge requires the measurement and regular reporting of greenhouse gas emissions to keep stakeholders informed of the progress signatories are making.
  • Amazon has identified renewables, logistics, supply chain and manufacturing processes as areas where real business change can help to meet the target.
  • Specific goals include switching to 100% renewables by 2025 (wind and solar primarily) and 50% of shipments being net zero carbon by 2030.
  • Offsetting can play a role too, as long as offsets are real, quantifiable, permanent and socially-beneficial.
  • Amazon Web Services is more efficient and has a lower carbon footprint that traditional computing. AWS is also leveraging cloud computing to support climate science by making climate related datasets available to researchers, government, and climate scientists.

Carbon neutral is no longer enough - Lorraine Tew, Cloud Supply Chain Sustainability, Microsoft

  • Microsoft aims to be carbon neutral by 2030, reducing emissions by half and removing carbon to the point it is below net zero.
  • The 2050 goal is to remove all carbon emitted directly since 1975 and this will be supported by a $1bn Climate Innovation Fund.
  • Microsoft apply an internal carbon tax, which was doubled to $15 per metric ton (MT) and includes Scope 3 emissions. The idea is that every team is accountable for emissions and it drives operational change. Funds collected are used to pay for emission reduction programmes.
  • Microsoft believes is has 100k MT of Scope 1 emissions, 4m MT for Scope 2, and 12mt for Scope 3. Scope 3 emissions are the hardest to address. Microsoft has set a SBT to reduce them by 55% by 2030.
  • To decarbonise cloud hardware, the key is circularity. By using primary data in the supply chain, Microsoft can understand the embedded energy in the materials and product packaging, waste generated by hardware, as well as understanding water and energy use. Getting the data is challenging, but with partnerships and pilots, the datasets have been improved and Microsoft has built APIs for use. A focus for Microsoft’s work on carbon reduction, waste elimination and water replenishment is digitizing data – we cannot reduce what we cannot measure.
  • Microsoft is keeping people up to date with progress and has signed up to the Transform to Net Zero Coalition. A sustainability calculator has been developed to support transparency and help customers understand their impacts.

The changing colours of cloud: Journey to Green - Kulveer Ranger, Global Head Strategy & Communications, Atos

  • 175 zettabytes of data will be generated by 2025
  • The growth of data use is not proportionate to the energy being consumed. This is due to better design, offsetting, moving to on demand rather than 24/7 and overall efficiency improvements.
  • Moving a single 1mw data centre is equal to 8.75m passenger miles in a car.
  • Atos has pledged to achieve net zero in scope 3 emissions by 2035 and is committed to helping customers understand their carbon impacts.

Buying renewables without subsidies -Chris Hewett, CEO, Solar Trade Association

  • Solar is the cheapest power source in the UK, as confirmed by BEIS. Solar costs in the past have also been traditionally over estimated than actual costs too. Expect the 2030 cost to be 35% lower than predicted in 2014.
  • Solar costs are decades ahead of forecasts on costs as the pace of development and replicability of the technology is very fast.
  • Larger panels are being produced and they are more efficient. Also drones and AI, plus flexibility services, trading and energy storage allows revenues to grow from each panel. In the future new materials and floating solar will come online too.
  • Seeing utility scale deployment of solar with 10GW of capacity being developed and 500MW a month being added. This is on top of 4GW of energy storage planned and 5GW already connected to the grid.
  • By 2030 22GW of generation will be on utility scale, 11GW on residential and 6GW in commercial settings.
  • Corporate Power Purchasing Agreements, CfDs being open to solar and private builds are the main routes to market.
  • techUK has partnered with Renewable UK and the Solar Trade Association to enable the sector to take up renewables and want to work on emerging tech that delivers grid flexibility (essential for the variable renewables market).