How Data Centers Can Lead the Adoption of Carbon Accounting

Data centers can lead the adoption of carbon accounting to help slash the Internet's impact on climate change, according to panelists at the JLL Data Center Forum, who discussed how the iMasons Climate Accord can bring leadership to carbon tracking and labeling.

How Data Centers Can Lead the Adoption of Carbon Accounting

PARK CITY, Utah – Carbon accounting is coming to the data center industry. It’s a big, complex challenger that will require both commitment and expertise.

The iMasons Climate Accord (ICA) was launched in April to slash the carbon output of the infrastructure powering the Internet. At last week’s JLL Data Center Forum, members of the ICA discussed the urgent need for action on climate change, and the importance of carbon accounting in driving change.

“I believe the data center can be the vanguard of this effort,” said Doug Moutoun, Principal Program Manager at Meta. “We can create a tech evolution that drives the solutions we need.”

“We are going to use the buying power of the community to drive an outcome,” said Dean Nelson, the founder and CEO of Infrastructure Masons. “If you look at the hyperscale operators, just in the publicly traded companies there is $6 trillion in market capitalization. The collective power of the colocation companies is actually bigger than the hyperscale companies.”

Nelson, Moutoun and Google’s Noah Goldstein joined moderator Sean Farney, the Executive Director of Data Center Strategy & Innovation at JLL, in a discussion that outlined how the iMasons Climate Accord can help advance sustainability.

More than 70 companies have joined the ICA effort, agreeing to take additional steps to track and reduce the environmental impact of data centers, creating a new level of carbon accountability. Now that the agreement has been announced, these companies must align behind common methodologies.

“We’re pretty advanced on financial accounting,” said Noah Goldstein, Senior Strategist for Sustainability at Google. “We have basic metrics and we all agree where we are. In carbon accounting, we are in early stages of how we account for our impact on the planet.”

Grappling With Embodied Carbon

Goldstein outlined two approaches to carbon accounting. First, there’s the operational carbon output from the energy and equipment used to operate a data center. The second category is embodied carbon, a much broader category which includes the emissions from materials, construction processes and transportation in a data center supply chain.

“We’re in the process of trying to figure out embodied carbon for a data center,” said Goldstein. “We need to make sure that it is accounted for so we recognize it as part of our footprint.  Now is the time for us to emerge as leaders.

“Investors are now asking for it and customers are also asking,” he added. ” Perhaps most importantly, the people we are hiring want to know – ‘how green are you, really?’ A number of local jurisdictions now want to know about embodied carbon as well. We’re trying to educate our partners government institutions and partners, but we can’t wait.”

The ICA plans to create an open standard to track the embodied carbon of everything from servers to power to construction materials used to build data centers. The end goal, Nelson said, is to create a “carbon label” for equipment and buildings that deliver Internet services, leveraging the buying power of the big cloud platforms to create a virtuous cycle of carbon reduction, motivating suppliers to track and report the environmental impact of their products.

The audience at the JLL Forum included representatives of many of the largest data center operators in the world. About 52 percent said their companies were measuring their carbon impact, 33 percent said they weren’t sure what climate data they were tracking.

It takes some investigation to identify all the embodied carbon in a supply chain. “One challenge is that a you refine your process, your numbers get worse,” said Goldstein. “We’re heading for open transparency.”

Nelson: PUE Provides a Roadmap

Nelson believes the adoption of carbon accounting will follow a similar track as the industry’s embrace of Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), an energy efficiency standard introduced in 2008 by The Green Grid, an industry consortium. There may be messy moments along the way, he said.

“When you get more data, it will get worse until it gets better,” said Nelson. “We need to understand it. We unified on PUE, and everyone started competing. I see a parallel here.

“We all want to do this and we’ll go through the same process,” Nelson added. “We should be putting carbon labels on things. Label the materials, the products, and the power. Procurement could be the real impact. How do you get the history for concrete and copper? The carbon label must include the content of those materials.

“A label helps the data get better,” he said. “What you measure, you can change. We can go do this.”

Nelson noted that the ISO has a standard for carbon accounting, as well as one for an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) that quantifies environmental information on the life cycle of a product.

“The tool to use is EPD,” said Goldstein, noting that “it could be expensive because it can cost between 5000 to $10,000 per product.”

Construction Ripe for Climate Innovation

“A lot of the hyperscalers are looking at the models available to track construction,” said Moutoun. “Concrete, glass and steel are three big items. We should decide if we can knock out the top two or three offenders on carbon impact, and work on those. I’m optimistic ”

Moutoun said targeting the materials with the largest carbon emissions can accelerate impact, and allow the data center industry to apply innovation.  One example, he said, would be the use of cross-laminated timber in place of steel in data center construction.

“We can be more mindful about how we build,” said Moutoun. “Topsoil is the best carbon sink we have. We violate the way our Earth absorbs water (with vast concrete structures). We materially change the permeability of the site.

“We can think about paving solutions that use materials with less carbon intensity,” he continued. “What if our paving material was more permeable? When we landscape, maybe we don’t use plants that need irrigation but use indigenous plants.”

On that front, Microsoft has begun research to explore the viability of using mushrooms, algae, agricultural waste and other materials to create buildings that can store carbon as well as data.

Goldstein said sustainability needs to be included in design philosophy. ” The end physical structure comes from somewhere,” he said. “Sometimes we spec our data center for seismic conditions. Our design teams have never had a greenhouse gas imperative.”

Data Sharing is Key. Volunteers Wanted

Whatever course the industry chooses on metrics and techniques, there must be data sharing for the effort to be effective.

“A structure was needed,” said Nelson. “The information exists. Now we’re looking for people to publish their numbers. We need a volunteer.”

That’s not always simple, as many data center operators view the details of their resource usage as proprietary information.  Getting everyone on the same page is key.

“One of the challenges we are facing is that there’s a lot of definitions and confusion,” said Goldstein. “We need to educate our internal leadership team and partners.”

Nelson said that participants in the iMasons working groups will all have the same training, to ensure a common framework.

“This is personally one of the most impactful things we can do,” he said. “We were doing sustainability before it was cool. It’s amazing to see how the community has been coming together.”