China: China's data centers and climate change

Sep 06, 2021 | Posted by MadalineDunn

China's data center market has seen incredible growth over the last few years. Back in 2019, the market was valued at USD 13.01 billion but is forecast to reach a value of USD 36.18 billion by 2025. It is also registering a CAGR of 19.2% from 2020 to 2025. While this is good news economically, when it comes to climate change, this growth is concerning. 

A report published by Greenpeace in 2020 projected that this tech growth will push electricity usage to increase by 289% between 2020 and 2035. Of course, this has huge environmental implications regarding carbon emissions, especially considering that 61% of electricity derives from fossil fuels like coal in China.

Unfortunately, the push for carbon neutrality has seen little traction amongst Chinese data center companies, with only two data center companies, The Chinadata Group and AtHub, revealing sustainability roadmaps to carbon-neutrality at the time of the report.

In May, Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Ye Ruiqi argued that tech companies in China are currently not doing enough to pursue renewables: "Technology companies have the potential to catalyze real emissions reductions via investment in distributed renewables projects and direct purchase of wind and solar energy, among other strategies. But some of the industry's biggest players, including Alibaba and GDS, have yet to issue 100 percent renewable energy or carbon neutrality commitments."

Further to this, Ye outlined that policymakers will play a big role in the transition to 100% renewable energy by potentially providing financial incentives to shift. Ye added: "Digital technology should be a solution to the climate crisis, not a growing source of emissions." 

Since the report, there has been some movement towards more environmentally friendly facilities. In July, at the China Internet Conference held in Beijing, a number of tech leaders discussed their plans to go green and highlighted companies that have already committed to carbon neutrality.

Guo Liang, the deputy chief engineer of China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), commented: "Tech companies such as Ant Group, Alibaba, Chindata Group, Tencent and Baidu all announced their carbon neutrality plans and methods, from architectural design to the green data center setup."

Wang Su, deputy manager of data center service company Shanghai AtHub Co, outlined that increasingly, tech companies are looking into the possibility of a more circular economy: "Many Chinese companies have realized the heat generated by data centers can be recycled," said Su, adding: "Our data centers in Fangshan District [in Beijing] can provide heat for a neighborhood community of 200 mu (13 hectares)."

Elsewhere, Guo Liang, deputy chief engineer of China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), said that domestic companies "have big potential to improve in carbon disclosure" when compared with global enterprises disclosing efforts.

Meanwhile, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced plans to build environmentally friendly data centers, including those in clusters.

While discussion around renewables and sustainability goals seems to be improving, it appears only marginal, and for China to reach or beat its 2060 carbon-neutrality goals, much more needs to be done, and soon.

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