Investments in data center sustainability have gained so much traction that they may almost no longer feel like a trend. For years, making data centers more sustainable has been a priority not just because it helps meet ESG goals, but also because sustainability enhancements go hand-in-hand with lower energy bills and improved data center reliability.
Yet, as we head into a new year, data center operators are continuing to experiment with new ways to increase sustainability. Here's a rundown of data center sustainability trends to watch in 2024 and beyond:
1. A Move Away From Carbon Offsets
For years, the cheapest and easiest way of attempting to reduce the carbon footprints of data centers was to purchase carbon offsets. Carbon offsets allow businesses to offset the carbon they emit through their operations by funding green initiatives elsewhere.
Carbon offsets have long been central to the ability of large tech companies to claim carbon-neutral status. Increasingly, however, the carbon offset practice is facing criticism. Its detractors point out that offsets don't always have the positive impact that their purchasers claim. Plus, they give deep-pocketed companies an "easy way out" when it comes to sustainability that is not available to smaller businesses whose infrastructure may actually be more sustainable, but whose total carbon emissions are higher because they can't afford to buy offsets as a means of reaching carbon neutrality.
In 2024, expect growing scrutiny of carbon offsets and increased pressure on data center operators to move away from the practice.
2. Investment in Green AI Infrastructure
Supporting AI workloads is a priority for many data centers today, given the widespread interest in training and deploying AI models. However, because AI training is an especially compute-intensive process, it can hamper efforts to improve data center sustainability.
For that reason, we'll likely see more investment over the coming year in so-called "green AI infrastructure" within data centers. For example, more data centers may become home to custom processors that are designed to reduce the energy consumed by AI workloads.
Strategies like these will be essential for businesses that want to embrace AI without letting it become a climate catastrophe on par with Bitcoin.
3. Increased Focus on Water Efficiency
For years, energy efficiency and the adoption of clean power sources was at the center of conversations about sustainability in the data center industry. Data center operators focused less on the amount of water that their facilities consumed.
This is likely to change as concerns about water resource limitations grow. Energy efficiency and sourcing will surely remain important, too, but we will probably see more data center operators finding ways to reduce water consumption or reuse water more efficiently.
4. More Sustainability Metrics Reporting and Disclosures
Growing interest in water use efficiency by data centers, combined with other factors, is likely to drive more pressure on data center operators to release hard data about their sustainability outcomes.
Amazon Web Services became the first cloud provider to release metrics related to water use last year, creating a precedent for other data center operators to do the same. Likewise, new regulations in California place climate-related disclosure requirements on data centers, setting a precedent that other governments could follow.
5. Embracing Quantum as a Sustainability Salve
If deployment of quantum computers inside data centers grows, it could revolutionize the sustainability landscape because quantum computers consume dramatically less energy than conventional processors relative to computing power.
We probably shouldn't expect 2024 to be the year when quantum computers become the norm inside data centers, but that process could begin – arguably, it's already underway – making data center equipment inherently more energy-efficient.
As organizations ramp up their ESG efforts in 2024, we can expect the data center industry to move away from carbon offsets and toward more transparent and comprehensive sustainability reporting. At the same time, water usage efficiency is poised to become an increasingly important component of sustainability strategies.
Looking ahead, more data center operators may prepare to adapt their sustainability operations to take advantage of the energy efficiency benefits of quantum devices, which appear to be slowly making their way into data centers.