Kas Mohammed, VP Digital Energy at Schneider Electric asks what smart buildings can learn from data centres about sustainability?

Buildings consume around half of the world’s electricity and produce 40% of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions. With rising urgency to halt climate change, the building sector has become a point of concern. Not only do new build practices need reform so that smart and sustainable buildings become the ‘norm’, but older buildings also need refurbishments so their emissions can be reduced exponentially.

Data centre industry is feeling similar pressures. The recent surge in demand for data centre services means significant growth of their carbon footprint. However, rather than continuing down the path of becoming an imminent ecological threat, data centre operators are taking action. They are ahead of the building industry when it comes to reducing their emissions, with specific plans in action to achieve ambitious targets.

The Buildings Challenge

Construction firms are rarely invested in the long-term life of the building. As soon as construction is done, that responsibility is passed down to the owner. This means that in

the planning stage, procurement matrices don’t factor sustainability into costs.

Ensuring that raw materials are responsibly sourced, projects are designed and built to high standards to ensure longevity, and materials at the end of life are reused as part of a circular economy – at the moment, there isn’t a consistent responsibility throughout the cycle.

There is a disconnect between the size of the task ahead, the time it will take to put plans into practice and the responsible party it falls to. And while some businesses, such as data centres, are leading the way on action like science-based decarbonisation target setting (86.9% of data centre respondents believe that their organisation’s carbon reduction targets are based on science), others are falling behind.

Only 64.6% of businesses across the UK and Ireland say the same, while a much lower proportion have committed to a science-based target validated by the Science based Targets Initiative (SBTi). 12 out of 16 UK county councils who responded to our Freedom of Information Request, submitted in August 2021, had no plans to create smart buildings that use technology to control aspects of lighting, temperature and improve energy efficiency.

One example that demonstrates the true value of smart buildings is Schneider Electric’s work with Swire Properties. Not only is new technology expected to bring annual energy savings of 10-20%, but it is also projected to provide remote resolution of up to 80% of issues – reducing the wastage of both time and energy.

How data centres are leading by example

The data centre industry has long been under the sustainability spotlight – especially during the pandemic, when there were huge surges in internet traffic due to the need for more remote connectivity. This external pressure has inevitably motivated the industry to find greener ways of working. However, data centre organisations appear to have grasped the nettle and are leading the way in decarbonisation.

A little over two thirds of data centre organisations in the UK and Ireland stated reducing their carbon footprint as one of their top three priorities in 2022. Almost half of them have set it as their top priority. What’s more, four fifths of data centre organisations believe they are on track to meet their carbon reduction targets, compared to three fifths of businesses, across the UK and Ireland. The same numbers are also more likely to take advantage of government incentives to reduce their carbon footprint.

Data centre providers are making decarbonisation a priority and taking the available opportunities to address the world’s carbon emissions challenge. Besides the pandemic, the most frequently cited barrier to implementing sustainability plans for data centres are regulatory or legislative uncertainty. These are barriers that do not depend on the companies, but rather governments and bureaucratic systems in place that can slow down necessary progress. If these were removed, the results observed would be even better.

Understanding the urgency of tackling climate change is not enough. Actions are needed to truly revolutionise the way we produce and use energy – not only in energy-intensive data centres, but also in the commercial and residential buildings which we spend most of our time in.

By leading the way with sustainable plans of action, data centres have proven that businesses can set environmental commitments and follow through with them, even if they’re experiencing a period of growth and higher levels of demand. Now, the building sector needs to show the same progression. This requires changes in the way we source materials, construct new buildings, and meet the potential of existing buildings with digital retrofitting. By following the example of other industries committing to climate targets, a large portion of emissions could be slashed, and our cities could be put back on track towards a net zero future.