Big tech’s mammoth data centres are going circular for smaller carbon footprints, with Microsoft leading the way
Big tech’s carbon footprint
A small cluster of digital technology companies dominate the global information economy. Apple’s $2.6 trillion market value approaches the GDP of India. Samsung Electronics and Alphabet made $200.734 and $182.5 billion in revenue respectively. These impressive financials have a carbon cost to match. Apple’s emissions in 2021 were 23.2 million metric tons. For comparison, the largest shipping company in the world released 37.1 million.
Nowadays, big tech’s carbon inheres mostly in their infrastructure and hardware – or ‘capital goods – rather than the energy used to operate them. Emissions embodied in these components are classified as scope 3 emissions – emissions from across a company’s whole supply chain. 48 percent of Facebook’s 5.9 million metric tons in scope 3 emissions came from hardware and infrastructure construction. Embodied emissions have pulled ahead of energy consumption for a positive reason: the industry has been gradually procuring more renewable energy for its operations. Facebook has reduced scope 2 emissions – emissions associated with the energy they purchase –from 1 million tonnes in 2016 to around 0.5 million tonnes in 2018.
However, Scope 3 embodied emissions pose more problems. These emissions are baked into a company’s equipment from the moment they arrive in the warehouse. They include the carbon footprint that occurred when its raw materials were extracted right through to the GHGs released by their manufacture and transport. They have been the notoriously stubborn element in the carbon calculus for many companies, who often resort to offsetting rather than tackling how they source, make, and re-use materials.
Why data centres need a circular overhaul
To make gains in scope 3 reductions, big tech must now look seriously at embedding circular principles into their data centres. Our search engines, e-mail, and webpages depend on these energy- and material-intensive information facilities, with their acres of memory drives, computers, and servers – the hardware that coordinates between computers.
Data centres are the beating heart of every major tech company and where the world’s information and digital communications are stored and processed. The Uptime Institute estimates that a third of the biggest reported global public service outages at data centres since January 2016 resulted in more than $250, 000 of losses. Despite their economic importance, and a growing awareness around consumer e-waste, data centre emissions rarely get mentioned. This may be because the core infrastructures of the digitally networked economy are invisible to the average consumer.
The tech companies run intercontinental networks of data centres. Google’s are situated in 8 locations in Europe, 16 in North America, 3 in South America, and 7 in Asia. One of its largest is in Oregon and takes up the same size as two American football pitches. The number of these facilities is only expected to grow. In less than two years, Facebook hardware devoted to AI training has quadrupled and consumer demand for data-hungry digital services such as cloud storage provision has surged.
Information doesn’t come cheap from an ecological perspective. Just one data centre can contain thousands of CPUs and their production releases huge amounts of, particularly from semiconductor fabrication. The carbon footprint embodied in CPU also include the environmental impacts of mining and processing critical metals like aluminium, cobalt, copper, glass, gold, tin, lithium, and zinc. Oil-based plastics makes up a huge proportion of data’s material infrastructure. Constructing the facilities also contributes emissions – racks, networking cabling, cooling systems.
The big four tech companies are increasingly singling out data centres as a key plank in their ESG strategies going forward. The most significant strides have been made by Microsoft.
Microsoft leads on circular data centre strategies
Like the rest of its sector, Microsoft has been more successful at cutting direct scope 1 and 2 emissions than its scope 3 emissions. While its scope 1 emissions stood at 123, 704 tons in 2021, scope 3 emissions come in at 13.85 million metric tons. Apart from dominating Microsoft’s overall emissions in absolute terms, scope 3 emissions are also rising dramatically. Between 2020 and 2021, Microsoft saw a 23 percent jump in this emissions class. Much of this was due to a pandemic-era expansion in Microsoft’s global data centre capacity to meet increased demand for cloud services.
Despite the jump in data centre capacity, Microsoft has the most detailed pathways to tackle hardware carbon out of the big four global tech companies. Acknowledging that its data centres impacts will make or break 2030 zero-waste target, Microsoft has committed to re-using 90 percent of servers and components within its regional data centre network by 2025 and to avoid 90 percent of operational waste at data centres worldwide.
Microsoft’s central strategy for meeting its data centre resource reduction goals turns around its Circular Centres, first announced back in 2020. These flagship facilities process decommissioned material from Microsoft’s data centres around the world. By 2021, four had been constructed on pre-existing data centre campuses at Dublin, Boydton Virgnia, Amsterdam, and Ireland. The Amsterdam Circular Centre, the first to be built, had achieved 83 percent component reuse and 17 percent recycle of critical parts by March 2021. In carbon terms, this amounts to reducing emissions by 145, 000 metric tons. Over the next 18 months the company aims to send 80 percent of decommissioned parts from its international data centres for processing at Circular Centres.
Microsoft’s circular data centres deploy in-house AI software named the Intelligent Disposition and Routing System (IDARS) to sorts decommissioned servers and hardware for further use by the company or selling onto customers. The software also generates information on how best to dispose of particular assets. To actually recover and repurpose hardware parts, the company relies on The e-waste recycling company ITRenew.
Apple works towards zero waste
Apple is working towards a 2030 carbon neutrality goal and its 2022 Environmental Progress report made zero waste across its manufacturing supply chain plus data centres one of three main focus areas within resource sustainability.
By 2021, two of its data centres at Mesa and Pineville were certified under the TRUE scheme which recognises facilities that send more than 90 percent of its waste to recycling, composting, or redirected for further reuse. In 2021 they diverted 85 percent (13, 000 metric tons) of construction and demolition material from landfill. The construction of their Danish data centre was powered 100 percent with wind energy, reducing the carbon footprint of the facility from the off. Apple’s long-term objective is to landfill no office, retail, data center, and construction site materials.
Alphabet’s Google subsidiary operates 19 centres worldwide with more in the pipeline and operates millions of servers. Its scope 3 emissions in 2020 was 9, 376, 000 tons.
Google have been implementing circular strategies for materials since 2016. In 2021, 27 percent of components used in upgrading servers were refurbished, up from 23 percent in 2020 and 11 percent in 2017. 4.9 million components were sold on for use by other organisations and 78 percent of waste from global data centres were diverted away from landfills.
In 2019, total waste from data centres and offices totalled 48, 126 metric tons. This dropped in 2020 to 28, 864 and dipped again to 28, 153 in 2021. Much of the waste reduction can be attributed to pandemic-era operational shifts and it remains to be seen whether the company can sustain these gains by enlarging circular practices year on year.
Although Google is making progress on embedded emissions, its carbon reduction commitments would benefit from more clarity. Although the company states that its aim is zero landfill waste from global data centre operations, they have not set a deadline for this nor milestones for the near-term.
Towards circular data centres
Big tech’s sustainability reports still focus on their renewable energy shifts. This is not a surprise given their successes in reducing on-site energy-based carbon emissions. Now, more focus should be given to how data centre materials are sourced and used.
One practical step towards pushing big tech to act on this would be regulations for how corporate environmental reports are compiled. There is urgent need to establish a taxonomy for minimum criteria that every company must disclose. Currently, the sustainability metrics that each tech company include in their reporting vary so much that easy cross-comparison progress is difficult to make.
In particular, environmental reports by big tech firms would benefit from greater detail on the construction materials used in data centre facilities. Just as tech companies already track water usage for data centre cooling, they should similarly formulate specific targets for lower-emission building materials at any new sites. Recycled building blocks should become the norm in data centre construction while bio-based structural materials should be explored. Technology companies can also use materials passports to track the life-cycle impacts of their data centre components.
Another resource that circular data centres must target are critical metals. The global supply chains in 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 vast accumulations of consumer and industry waste that go to landfill every year.