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Why data centres, 5G networks are at the forefront of climate-change fight in China

Data centres and data transmission networks, the so-called digital infrastructure , require a lot of power to drive the internet. Their powerful computers and storage servers emit carbon and impact the environment too. As the world actively embraces the digital economy, data centres and related facilities also become the latest target of actions by Big Tech and climate-change proponents alike. China, as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, is also taking steps to cut emissions. Here’s what you need to know about data centres and how they are linked to climate change in the world’s second largest digital economy. What are the roles of data centres and their impact on climate? Around 4.9 billion people, or 63 per cent of the world’s population, are using the internet in 2021, more than twice the users from a decade ago, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The global internet traffic has also expanded 15-fold, or 30 per cent every year. Climate change: China outlines peak-emissions strategy for data centres, 5G networks to support net-zero goals Driven by demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, including for video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming, and social networking, global internet traffic surged by more than 40 per cent in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Most of the world’s Internet Protocol (IP) traffic – whenever you upload photos on Instagram or host video conferences over Zoom – goes through data centres, which are sprawling facilities that store, process, and disseminate data and applications. Data centres consumed around 200 to 250 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in 2020, or about 1 per cent of global electricity demand, according to IEA. They contributed 0.3 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions in 2020. Cryptocurrency mining, which relies heavily on data centres, separately consumed 100 TWh. In addition, data transmission networks like 4G and 5G mobile networks, are also a power-hungry technology which consumed 260 to 340 TWh of electricity globally in 2020, or 1.1 to 1.4 per cent of global electricity consumption. Without intervention, carbon emissions can only be expected to get worse, given the exponential growth of data and computing power for applications and emerging technologies like blockchain, machine learning, 5G and virtual reality. What is the state of data centres in China? China is also home to the world’s largest 5G network and the world’s second biggest data-centre industry after the US in 2020. It considers digital infrastructure as a top priority for boosting employment and economic growth. China had about 74,000 data centres in 2019, accounting for roughly 23 per cent of the global total, according to an April report published by Greenpeace, an environmental activist group. China’s digital infrastructure sector is expected to consume 782 billion kWh of electricity by 2035, according to Greenpeace. That is about 5 to 7 per cent of national power consumption, compared with 2.7 per cent in 2020. Like most power-hungry industries, the data centres and data transmission networks rely on 61 per cent of its power from coal-fired plants, according to Greenpeace. That is not surprising. China depended on such plants to generate around 57 per cent of its electricity output in 2020, according to official data. In 2020, the data centres and 5G networks together consumed 201 billion kWh of electricity in the country, roughly equivalent to the combined consumption in Beijing and Shenzhen. Carbon emissions from the nation’s digital infrastructure are projected to reach 310 million tonnes in 2035 from 123 million in 2020, Greenpeace projected. How can organisations achieve net-zero emissions from data centres? With world leaders stressing the need and introducing actions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there have also been actions taken in the digital infrastructure sector. One of the solutions is to use green or clean power. Global information and communication technology (ICT) firms have invested considerable sums in renewable energy to reduce their environmental impact and improve brand reputation. These firms accounted for half of global corporate renewable energy procurement in the past five years, IEA said. Apple, Microsoft and Google’s owner Alphabet Inc and peers, which operate hyperscale data centres, have managed to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy in operational electricity consumption in 2020. Amazon recently became the world’s largest corporate purchaser of solar and wind-powered energy, reaching 10 gigawatts (GW) to support its data centres and corporate offices. What has China done to make data centres more sustainable? President Xi Jinping announced last September that the country will aim to achieve peak emissions by 2030, and net-zero by 2060. To hit those targets, China will need to halve carbon dioxide emissions from its coal-fired power plants by the end of 2030, according to London-based climate research group TransitionZero. “China’s electricity production structure is still dominated by coal,” said Wu Qi, executive director of the Wuxi Digital Economy Research Institute in eastern Jiangsu province. “The key is to upgrade and enable the data centres and 5G base stations for direct renewable power to reach their peak-carbon and neutrality goals.” Although still heavily reliant on coal power, the Chinese government and big data centre operators have made commitments to curb emissions from the sector. Earlier this month, the National Development and Reform Commission announced its strategy to contain emissions in its digital infrastructure over the next five years. It includes optimising the construction layout of data centres and 5G networks and encouraging the use of clean energy. GDS Holdings, which hosts some of the largest cloud service operators including Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings, has used more than 20 per cent of its power from renewable sources in 2020. It aims to go 100 per cent and reach net-zero in 2030. Chindata Group, a major data-centre operator, has also committed to achieve 100 per cent clean-energy by 2030. It can tap into 400 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy reserves for development, which will provide 600 million kWh annually when added to the grid. It will also reduce emissions equivalent to 564,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Examples of increased use of renewable energy “shows that corporate climate action in the tech sector is absolutely feasible in China,” said Wu Xueying, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. What are the future trends to watch in data centre sustainability? Data centre operators will join the sustainability efforts more purposefully in 2022. Operators and suppliers will actively pursue strategies “that can make a real difference in addressing the climate crisis,” said Rob Johnson, CEO of Vertiv, a global digital infrastructure provider. On the operational front, more organisations are expected to match digital solutions with 100 per cent renewable energy and enable data centres to operate carbon-free round the clock, the firm said. Other sustainable technologies such as fuel cells, liquid cooling systems, and long-duration energy storage systems will play a vital role in providing resilient and reliable outcomes, according to experts. “Currently, the fluctuations in the supply of photovoltaic and wind power still pose certain challenges to the digital infrastructure,” said Wu from the Wuxi institute. “In the future, low-cost, long-term energy storage technologies and facilities will be widely used in the construction of data centres, and will have huge room for development.”

Why data centres, 5G networks are at the forefront of climate-change fight in China comes via ChinaTechNews.com.

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