A new report says that data centers based in mainland China are producing exponentially more carbon dioxide, equivalent to 21 million cars on the road each year.
Data centers currently rival the airline industry in regard to their environmental impact, and this is expected to rise substantially as the world becomes more digitally-connected. As it stands, data centers that make websites, social networks, video and music streaming and everything else online possible are responsible for anywhere between 3-5% of the world’s total energy consumption.
Authors of the report estimate that in half a decade, China’s data centers will be responsible for more than two-thirds more energy consumption than today, at around 267TWh in 2023. For perspective, this is more than the total amount of electricity consumed on Australian shores for the year of 2018.
With this, carbon emissions from powering the growth of data centers is expected to rise, from 99 to 163 million tonnes; equivalent to 35 million vehicles.
“To prevent this, China’s data centers need to decouple their electricity consumption from their carbon footprint by relying on wind and solar energy,” Greenpeace climate expert, Ye Ruiqi says. “Thy can build their own renewable energy capacity, buy clean energy on the market or purchase green certificates to offset their emissions.”
It would come as no surprise, then, that China’s data center industry is one of the world’s largest. While the Chinese government has acted to roll out more renewable energy on the mainland - China set a goal of 20% renewable power by 2030 - most of these energy-intensive data centers are not powered by renewable energy.
As it stands, these data centers are powered by 73% coal power, 23% renewable energy and 4% through nuclear fission. “If renewable energy increased to 30% by 2023, 16-million metric tons of CO2 emissions could be avoided,” according to Greenpeace; the same as 10 million round-trip trans-Atlantic flights.
“Nearly three quarters of that power comes from coal,” Ye Ruiqi said, adding that this reliance is due to mostly geographic reasons.
“Most facilities are located on the East coast, near business hubs and away from China’s renewable energy capabilities in the center and the west of the country. Out of the 44 data centers we surveyed, only five used clean energy in their mix.”
According to CNN Business’ Julie Zaugg, “China’s data center industry is dominated by domestic players like Alibaba and Tencent, though Apple is currently building a data center in the country’s southern Guizhou Province. The joint venture with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Company will allow the US company to improve the speed and reliability of its services, but also comply with new, tougher cybersecurity laws.”
Zaugg continued to explain that American data giants like Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have moved to make their data centers powered completely by renewable sources of energy.
Apple claims all of its data centers are 100% powered by renewable energy, while Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith said recently that the company will surpass the 70% mark by 2030. Amazon Web Services surpassed the 50% renewable energy mark last year.