Decarbonize digital infrastructure to make net zero a reality

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Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, companies have committed to decarbonizing. Although sometimes considered carbon-intensive, the technology sector, and in particular digital infrastructure, has pioneered sustainable strategies that simultaneously support global economic development and protect the planet.

The COP27-related Decarbonization Day is an opportune time to review the innovative strategies being deployed to meet growing demand for sustainable and secure global connectivity: and to reflect on areas for improvement.

See also: – All ESG clarity COP27 coverage

United Nations Sustainability Goals and Challenges and Opportunities for Infrastructure

Building resilient infrastructure, fostering innovation and promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization are key pillars of UN Sustainable Development Goal 9. At the same time, the demand for global connectivity and the democratization of Internet access are growing rapidly. In the last 10 years alone, the volume of data worldwide has increased by 3,300%. Digital infrastructure projects – including data centers, undersea cables and wireless networks – are more crucial than ever to facilitating this digital revolution.

Aligning this skyrocketing demand with 2030 and 2050 emissions targets is not easy. While undoubtedly challenging, the digital infrastructure sector has nonetheless emerged as a leader in the rush to decarbonize the tech space.

Breaking with tradition to promote decarbonization and create value

Data centers are the brains of the Internet. They store data and process billions of data interactions every day. But cooling servers buzzing around the clock isn’t easy. This requires a lot of electricity consumption – often scarce electricity generated by polluting fossil fuels, especially in the traditional data center markets of London, Amsterdam, Dublin and Frankfurt.

Breaking away from these traditional data centers can lessen the environmental impact of the Internet. It is more efficient to migrate power-hungry, latency-insensitive data and applications to areas of abundant and secure renewable energy. The efficiency of data centers is described by their PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) metric. It is much easier to achieve a lower PUE value in colder climates because the outside air can be used to cool the equipment to the optimum temperature.

Increasingly, we see the Nordic region, which has the lowest electricity prices in Europe, becoming a key market for data centers, thanks to its geographical advantage and abundant renewable energy. Access to this renewable energy means that any additional electricity needs can be met without using hydrocarbons, further reducing carbon emissions.

For example, Nordic data center platform Verne Global emits less than 2% of the emissions of a UK data center and uses 100% renewable baseload energy from geothermal and hydro.

With rising energy costs, prioritizing Nordic renewable sources for data centers not only reduces emissions; it also saves money and increases energy security.

Research as a gateway to new opportunities

The digital infrastructure space is home to innovative new solutions that improve the internet and dramatically reduce emissions. Global data center operators are exploring alternative fuel sources that can be used to minimize the carbon footprint of existing facilities. The growing interest in hydrogen is particularly exciting. Verne Global is the first data center in the Nordics to test hydrogen fuel cell backup systems.

More attention is also being paid to the ability of undersea cables to improve the sustainability of the Internet. Undersea fiber transmits more than 98% of international data between countries. Aqua Comms supports NYU’s pioneering research into the carbon efficiency of undersea cables and maximizing the environmental sustainability of digital infrastructure. This research will provide directional insights into a hitherto understudied area, in turn helping to steer companies toward low-carbon operations.

Important next steps

Digital infrastructure is key to bridging the digital divide and driving global economic growth and social development. Internet access opens opportunities to previously excluded markets, while innovation in health and education technologies is expected to improve lives around the world. Yet, with rising temperatures and extreme weather events becoming the norm, it has never been more crucial to focus on sustainable activities.

Increasing global connectivity should not be seen as a compromise with decarbonization goals. The integration of new technologies and the promotion of research-based initiatives are key to sustainable interconnectivity. Positioned at the forefront of climate-friendly technology, digital infrastructure presents a strong investment case that targets returns and helps the planet.

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