Big tech’s gigantic data centers are going circular for smaller carbon footprints, with Microsoft leading the way
The carbon footprint of big tech
A small group of digital technology companies dominate the global information economy. Apple’s $2.6 trillion market value approximates India’s GDP. Samsung Electronics and Alphabet made $200.734 billion and $182.5 billion in revenue, respectively. This impressive financial data has a corresponding carbon cost. Apple’s emissions in 2021 were 23.2 million metric tons, or 350 times those emitted by the world’s largest shipping company, Maersk.
Today, the carbon in big tech comes mostly from their infrastructure and hardware – or “capital goods” rather than from the energy used to run them. The emissions embodied in these components are classified as scope 3 emissions – emissions from across a company’s supply chain. 48% of Facebook’s 5.9 million metric tons of Scope 3 emissions came from building equipment and infrastructure. Embedded emissions have outpaced energy consumption for a positive reason: industry has progressively sourced more renewable energy for its operations. Facebook reduced scope 2 emissions — emissions associated with the energy they buy — from 1 million tons in 2016 to around 0.5 million tons in 2018.
However, intrinsic scope 3 emissions are more problematic. These emissions are incorporated into a company’s equipment as soon as they arrive in the warehouse. They include the carbon footprint generated during the extraction of its raw materials to the GHGs emitted by their manufacture and transport. They have been the notoriously stubborn element in the carbon calculation for many companies, which often resort to offsetting rather than addressing how they source, manufacture and reuse materials.
Why Data Centers Need a Circular Redesign
To realize gains in scope 3 reductions, big tech must now seriously consider integrating circular principles into their data centers. Our search engines, e-mail, and web pages depend on these power- and hardware-intensive information facilities, with their acres of memory drives, computers, and servers—the hardware that coordinates computers.
Data centers are the beating heart of all major technology companies and where the world’s digital information and communications are stored and processed. The Uptime Institute estimates that a third of the world’s largest reported utility outages in data centers since January 2016 resulted in losses of more than $250,000. Despite their economic importance and a growing awareness of consumer e-waste, data center emissions are rarely mentioned. This may be because the basic infrastructure of the digital network economy is invisible to the average consumer.
Technology companies operate intercontinental networks of data centers. Google is located in 8 locations in Europe, 16 in North America, 3 in South America and 7 in Asia. One of the largest is in Oregon and is the same size as two American football fields. It is expected that the number of such facilities will only increase. In less than two years, Facebook’s AI training materials have quadrupled, and consumer demand for data-intensive digital services like providing cloud storage has grown.
Information is not cheap from an ecological point of view. A single data center can contain thousands of processors, and their production releases huge quantities, especially from semiconductor manufacturing. The carbon footprint embedded in the CPU also includes the environmental impacts of mining and processing critical metals like aluminum, cobalt, copper, glass, gold, tin, lithium, and zinc. . Petroleum-based plastics are an important part of the physical data infrastructure. Plant construction also contributes to emissions – racks, network cabling, cooling systems.
The Big Four tech companies increasingly see data centers as a key part of their ESG strategies going forward. The most significant progress has been made by Microsoft.
Microsoft leads on circular data center strategies
Like the rest of its industry, Microsoft has been more successful in reducing direct Scope 1 and 2 emissions than its Scope 3 emissions. While its Scope 1 emissions were 123,704 tonnes in 2021, Scope 3 emissions amount to 13.85 million metric tons. In addition to dominating Microsoft’s overall emissions in absolute terms, scope 3 emissions are also increasing dramatically. Between 2020 and 2021, Microsoft saw a 23% jump in this class of shows. Much of that was due to an expansion of Microsoft’s global data center capacity in the pandemic era to meet increased demand for cloud services.
Despite increasing data center capacity, Microsoft has the most detailed pathways to tackle hardware carbon among the Big Four global technology companies. Recognizing that the impact of its data centers will make or break the 2030 zero waste goal, Microsoft has committed to reusing 90% of the servers and components of its regional data center network by 2025 and avoiding 90 % of operational waste in data centers worldwide.
Microsoft’s central strategy to meet its data center resource reduction goals revolves around its circular centers, first announced in 2020. These flagship facilities handle decommissioned hardware from Microsoft’s data centers around the world. By 2021, four had been built on pre-existing data center campuses in Dublin, Boydton Virginia, Amsterdam and Ireland. Amsterdam’s circular center, the first to be built, had achieved 83% component reuse and 17% critical parts recycling by March 2021. In carbon terms, this is equivalent to reducing emissions by 145,000 metric tons. Over the next 18 months, the company aims to send 80% of decommissioned parts from its international data centers for processing in circular centers.
Microsoft’s circular data centers deploy in-house artificial intelligence software called the Intelligent Disposition and Routing System (IDARS) to sort out decommissioned servers and hardware for later corporate use or sale to customers. The software also generates information on how best to dispose of certain assets. To actually recover and reuse hardware parts, the company relies on e-waste recycling company ITRenew.
Apple is working towards zero waste
Apple is working towards a 2030 carbon neutral goal and its 2022 Environmental Progress Report has made zero waste throughout its manufacturing supply chain and data centers one of three key areas of focus. resource sustainability.
In 2021, two of its data centers in Mesa and Pineville were certified under the TRUE program which recognizes facilities that send more than 90% of their waste to recycling, composting or redirected for further reuse. In 2021, they diverted 85% (13,000 metric tons) of construction and demolition materials from landfills. The construction of their Danish data center was powered by 100% wind energy, which reduced the carbon footprint of the facility from the start. Apple’s long-term goal is to landfill zero office, retail, data center, and construction site hardware.
Alphabet’s Google subsidiary operates 19 centers around the world with more in the pipeline and operates millions of servers. Its scope 3 emissions in 2020 were 9,376,000 tonnes.
Google has been implementing circular materials strategies since 2016. In 2021, 27% of components used in server upgrades were refurbished, compared to 23% in 2020 and 11% in 2017. 4.9 million components were sold for use by other organizations and 78% of global data center waste was diverted from landfills.
In 2019, total data center and office waste was 48,126 metric tons. This figure fell to 28,864 in 2020 and fell back to 28,153 in 2021. Much of the waste reduction can be attributed to pandemic-era operational changes and it remains to be seen whether the company can sustain these gains. by expanding circular practices year over year.
Although Google is making progress on integrated emissions, its carbon reduction commitments would benefit from being clearer. While the company says its goal is to landfill waste from global data center operations, it hasn’t set a deadline for that or short-term milestones.
Towards circular data centers
Big tech sustainability reports always focus on their renewable energy changes. This is no surprise given their successes in reducing on-site energy-related carbon emissions. Now, more focus should be placed on how data center materials are obtained and used.
A practical step to push big tech to do this would be to regulate how corporate environmental reports are compiled. There is an urgent need to establish a taxonomy of the minimum criteria that each company must disclose. Currently, the sustainability metrics each tech company includes in their reports vary so much that it’s hard to make easy cross-comparison progress.
In particular, the environmental reports of large technology companies would benefit from more detail about the construction materials used in data center facilities. Just as technology companies are already monitoring water use for data center cooling, they should also formulate specific targets for low-emitting building materials at all new sites. Recycled building blocks should become the norm in data center construction, while bio-based structural materials should be explored. Technology companies can also use hardware passports to track the lifecycle impacts of their data center components.
Another resource that circular data centers should target are critical metals. The global supply chains of these high-tech metals are vulnerable to geopolitical shocks while their primary extraction is highly polluting. Big tech can pursue a circular strategy by recycling these critical metals from the vast accumulations of consumer and industrial waste that goes to landfill each year.