International Telecoms Week (ITW) 2023 made its highly awaited return, uniting leaders from across various sectors of the digital infrastructure industry. Held from May 14-17, the event staged engaging discussions and insightful presentations from the industry’s best. One of the topics from the discussions was the environmental impact of data centers and their ongoing sustainability initiatives.

In the panel titled “Besides Targets And Pledges, How Is The Data Centre Community Moving The Needle On Sustainability?” industry experts addressed the primary obstacles data centers face in aligning with sustainability objectives and suggested potential strategies for progress. From rethinking metrics and accounting practices to increased collaboration, the conversation underscored the immediate need for action to build a greener future for digital infrastructure.

The panel comprised Quantum Loophole CEO Josh Snowhorn, iMasons Founder and Chairman Dean Nelson, Digital Realty’s VP of Sustainability Aaron Binkley, Equinix’s VP of Sustainability Chris Wellise, Schneider Electric’s VP of Solution Architects Joe Reele, and Jason McGee-Abe, the Global TMT Lead at 26Five, who moderated the discussion.

The panel kicked off with the critical issue of accurately accounting for certain environmental impacts of data centers. Specifically, they honed in on the need to standardize the measurement of Scope 3 emissions – a category of indirect emissions that factor in sources like equipment lifespan, waste generation in operations, and upstream transportation. These emissions are often loosely defined and sometimes overlap across multiple companies, making it hard to account for without open collaboration and transparency. 

During the panel, a sustainable approach was addressed that illustrated the complexity of the issue: incorporating a regional perspective when mapping out and deploying data center technologies. By targeting regions with renewable power options, pre-existing infrastructure, and abundant water sources, especially reclaimed water, data centers can mitigate their environmental impact more effectively. Combining this approach with the large-scale construction of data centers in concentrated areas can lead to significant, yet sometimes hard-to-quantify carbon reductions through the efficient use of concrete, conservation of water and a decrease in transportation emissions. 

The discussion then pivoted towards recent shifts driving sustainability in the industry. For instance, the financial sector has increasingly recognized the importance of sustainability, driven by both profit motives and regulatory requirements. Investors are now prioritizing sustainable projects and companies that can demonstrate progress in achieving their environmental goals. Proposed regulations, such as the requirement to disclose greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sustainability efforts, further emphasize the need for standardized reporting and accounting practices within the data center industry.

While considerable progress has been made toward sustainability, the panelists stressed that the industry isn’t moving fast enough. Companies can’t afford to wait for ideal standards to be established but instead must collaborate to make the changes needed. Public commitments from major companies towards sustainability goals have helped foster a sense of collective responsibility and initiated a call for collaboration within the industry. Through this cooperative effort, companies can solidify industry-wide standards, improve accounting practices, and drive the innovation needed to achieve a more sustainable digital world.

Registered attendees of ITW 2023 can view the panel on-demand via the event app. The session recording can also be viewed here.