Is legal compliance enough to ensure sustainability in data centres?


Kagiso Mahlangu | Director | Head | Real Estate & Conveyancing | CMS South Africa | mail me |

South Africa is in the midst of a data centre boom. Thanks largely to improved connectivity, the number of local data centres has mushroomed over the past decade. In addition to regional players, big names such as AWS, Huawei, Google, and Microsoft have all invested heavily in local centres.

Technologies are fuelled by data centre growth – including cloud and artificial intelligence, and this becomes increasingly intertwined with our daily lives.

In fact, analysts predict that US$3.7 billion will be invested in local data centres by 2029. Leading the charge when it comes to investment is AWS, which in April last year announced plans to invest US$1.66 billion in expanding its cloud infrastructure in South Africa by 2029.

Data centre construction and maintenance provide much-needed employment opportunities. The data centres themselves also support the growth and development of the local tech sector. But data centres also come with an environmental cost.

According to the International Energy Agency, data centres account for at least one percent of greenhouse gas emissions and around 1-1.5% of global energy use. They also use a lot of water for cooling purposes, which is a serious concern in a country as water-scarce as South Africa. It should hardly be surprising then that there is growing pressure on data centres to operate sustainably. But what does sustainability in the data centre space look like? Is legal compliance sufficient? Or do data centre operators need to go further?

Getting ahead of the legislation 

One answer to those questions lies in the fact that there currently isn’t any piece of environmental legislation that covers data centres specifically. While the government’s National Data and Cloud Policy acknowledges the importance of “low-carbon sustainable development requirements” for data centres, no such legislative requirements are currently in place.

Data centres are instead required to comply with more indirect forms of legislation. These include laws and regulations covering things like air quality, waste management, and water usage.

Given the growing trend of countries placing strict environmental requirements on data centres, it’s only a matter of time before such legislation comes into focus in South Africa. This means that even though data centres can’t use legal compliance in their sustainability claims right now, they do have a unique opportunity to get ahead of the legislation and embrace sustainability.

International guidance 

And, to be fair, several major data centre operators have committed themselves to a variety of sustainability initiatives. Many local data centres, for example, now run on renewable energy.

While the initial push for that switch to solar may have had more to do with circumventing load shedding than from environmental concerns, it will pay off from a sustainability perspective in the long run. Similarly, many of the newer data centres built in South Africa use cooling technologies that don’t require ongoing water use.

Unlike traditional “evaporate cooling” methods, these systems don’t require constant replenishment. Simply put, these newer, “closed loop” systems only need to be filled with water once because there’s no evaporation during the process. Again, this has benefits outside of sustainability. In a water-scarce country like South Africa, saving water isn’t just good for the environment but also the data centre’s bottom line.

But what if data centre operators want to go beyond legislation (present and future) and fully embrace sustainability? In those instances, there is international guidance they can turn to.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), for example, has a guide to building green data centres. The guide, created in collaboration with the World Bank; the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ); and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), covers six critical dimensions that operators should bear in mind when building data centres. These include climate-resilient data centres; sustainable design and buildings; sustainable ICT; sustainable energy; sustainable cooling; and e-waste management.

Do it correctly now & reap the benefits later 

Ultimately, data centre operators shouldn’t view the lack of industry-specific legislation as a reason to delay enhancing their sustainability efforts. Instead, they should look to adopt best practices and get ahead of any legislation before it’s promulgated.

And even when legislation comes into effect, they should aim to go beyond simple compliance. When it comes to issues like sustainability, compliance should be seen as a bare-minimum baseline, rather than something to aspire to.



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