How artificial intelligence and technology are used to minimise the environmental impact of data centres and cloud computing

03 May 2023 by Jess Choo
blog author

​For the past two decades, digital transformation has been at the forefront of many corporate conversations as the world’s carbon emissions continue to increase. Despite remaining centre stage, the digital-first approach still awaits the arrival of many data-driven businesses joining the global mission to accelerate the implementation of new technologies for a more prosperous future.

Embracing such innovations generates an excessive amount of data as firms are held to account to operate with optimal sustainability, using data storage facilities in the form of gigantic data centres for more effective operations.

Despite many companies working towards supporting the digital economy, as they strive to both elevate their brand, expand operations, and focus on strengthening ESG credentials, data centres intensify the environmental impact, resulting in a call for urgent, innovative solutions.

In short, technology is required to solve issues caused by…technology. Ironic but entirely feasible.

Environmental damage inflicted by data centres
Energy-guzzling data centres and Cloud facilities store hoards of digital information for companies around the globe, creating a list of environmental issues generated by various operations. These include greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the cooling systems and IT equipment, excessive energy usage and being extremely water intensive.

While data storage boosts companies’ compliance with mandatory ESG disclosure requirements, a practice which has seen great improvement in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region (aligning it more or less with US standards), being sustainable and socially responsible is a growing trend with more data centres investing in the latest tech and processes for a lower impact.

APAC boasts the second-highest level of disclosures that align with the framework developed by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), bolstering the importance of utilising data facilities to house a greater quantity of secure storage.

Unlocking AI opportunities for more efficient and sustainable data centres
Leveraging technology such as AI for the greater good and linking it to data centres and Cloud computing can make great strides in reducing the environmental impact of data storage and processing and making them more sustainable functions.

Currently accounting for four percent of the total amount of GHG emissions worldwide, data centres benefit from the implementation of AI - once a futuristic notion but now embedded across many business operations.

Although the increased number of businesses turning to technology will generate more carbon, using scientific knowledge such as smart devices and Internet of Things, will help lower the carbon footprint in alignment with a net zero emission future.

Technology’s carbon footprint is unsurprisingly sizable in APAC, with around 60 data centres in Singapore alone, responsible for around seven per cent of the country’s total electricity consumption in 2020.

It has been estimated that US$46.6bn could be spent on AI systems in the APAC region by 2026, including hardware, software and services. Rather than replacing human skills, however, artificial intelligence if used correctly will complement an existing workforce by working to take on some of the heavier, more time-consuming tasks to free the mere mortals up to develop their skill set and focus on making an impact elsewhere.

Data handling is one of AI’s fortes. Protecting the environment from data centres’ more negative environmental impacts is another.

Decreased costs with advanced technology
Major companies such as Google have invested in AI to reduce energy use at its data centres as a cost-cutting exercise as well as to showcase environmental prowess. The tech giant’s energy cost of cooling has been reduced by 40 per cent whereas IBM has increased its weather forecasting predictions by 30 per cent as a result of investing in AI.

This will assist IBM’s renewable energy companies in maximising renewable energy production and reducing carbon emissions.

Utilising real-time virtual models, known as digital twins, can significantly improve energy efficiency. Starting life as a 3D model, digital twins can work to ensure data centres operate more sustainably from waste reduction through to forecasting the centre’s needs. The latter is achieved by comparing predicted and actual behaviour to better understand the energy use within the centre.

Overall reduced carbon emissions with AI
Reducing the amount of fossil fuel-based energy through the optimisation of electricity production is a major string to AI’s bow. According to a Gartner report, 50 per cent of Cloud data centres will see a higher operating efficiency - with as much as a 30 per cent improvement - as a result of using robots with AI and ML capabilities by 2025.

Utilising AI to monitor temperatures, cool systems when required and assess CO2 emissions will help reduce a data centre’s carbon footprint.

According to research, it has been estimated that AI can help reduce carbon emissions by a staggering 14 billion tons by 2035 and has the ground-breaking potential, when used within data centres, to predict and optimise maintenance as well as optimise electricity production.

Kavickumar Muruganathan, who works in the sustainable technology space, told Acre: “AI-driven Cloud operations will require more power. This means data centres will require more energy for their operations. A sustainable data centre would need to optimise energy efficiency, meaning to reduce energy use where possible and using renewable sources of energy, such as solar, to power its operations.

“Long-term viable renewable energy supply is critical to ensure that data centres are able to scale and support the proliferation of AI. On the other side of the coin, AI as a technology, can be a pivotal enabler of sustainability. AI has the transformative ability to help companies optimise their energy use and identify areas for enhancing sustainability performance.

“Increasingly, companies are seeing the value of driving their sustainability performance with technology, particularly AI, at the heart of it. There is enormous value to be derived by corporates with the intersections between technology and sustainability at the forefront of digital disruption and energy transition, both of which being very transformational.”

Spike Choo utilises technology to focus on sustainability solutions. He said: “AI has already been embedded into many of the software programs that drive data centre operations such as building management, facility management and NOC [network operations centre], and increasingly, AI-embedded applications in OT [operational technology] will be the key drivers in making data centres more sustainable and energy-efficient.

“We are already leveraging on our data depository to improve business and operational efficiency so as to deliver better end-user experience for both consumers and enterprises. The benefits are tremendous, but we are mindful as well of the need to ensure all personal and sensitive data are handled securely and with utmost care.

“Any organisations which aim to be more sustainable will need to rely on data from the supply chain, operating systems, physical assets, etc to make informed decisions and more importantly, align business KPIs with Sustainability KPIs.”

Sachin Gupta told Acre: “Data centres, or for that matter most of the IT system workloads, are mostly leveraging AI today. Hence in my view, the question is NOT whether AI needs to be integrated to create more efficient sustainable data centres but to what extent will AI play a role to create these most sustainable data centres and how.

“In my view, AI is going to play a very monumental and catalyst role in developing these efficient layers of technology workloads, whether it be data centres, public Clouds, on-prem solutions or any hybrid version.

There are so many aspects in which this will be played out with some of the most significant dimensions around designing and orchestrating most efficient IT workflows, ethical and responsible use of IT systems and building a sustainable IT architecture.

“My organisation has been leveraging AI for the last 10-12 years in pretty much every aspect of our business. All the transformational work undertaken for our clients is actively supported by AI right from analysis all the way to action.

“While there are challenges such as AI models requiring large and curated data sets which are difficult to obtain sometimes and the extensive training for AI to work comprehensively, AI and technology can unite to drive stronger and sustainable business outcomes.

“There are many other similar examples from other industries as well but the advent of advanced technology such as Cloud, AI, IoT, Blockchain, Quantum etc have really accelerated the journey to a “net zero” climate in a very significant way.”

Do you work in the AI space and would like a further discussion about the vital role it can play within data centres and the Cloud in mitigating negative environmental impact while advancing the technological capabilities? I would welcome your perspective on this and to hear how you envision it aligning with sustainability in the future to drive stronger business outcomes.

Jess Choo is a senior member of Acre's Sustainable Business Practice in APAC. Based in Singapore, she specialises in senior executive search leading our work in the Technology, Telecom and Media sectors.

Jess has worked with leading organisations across various sectors including Pharmaceuticals, Manufacturing, Technology and Mining – with a proven track record of placing mid to senior-level executives across Big 4 Consultancies and Fortune 500 companies within the Digital/ERP space, tackling the toughest challenges in a niche market.