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22 Feb 2019 3:20
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  •   Home > News > International

    Data centres join record number of Australian businesses going carbon neutral

    Chances are all your photos and videos are being stored on cloud servers that burn a lot of power. Now, data centres are joining the wave of Australian companies going carbon neutral.

    If you've been trying to reduce your carbon footprint, you probably haven't thought about the role your selfies could play.

    Photos, emails, phone backups likely end up on cloud servers, which sit in massive data centres dotted around the globe. Keeping them running takes a lot of power.

    The energy used by computing is expected to increase soquickly it could account for as much as half the world's energy demand in just over a decade.

    Data centres are estimated to use as much energy as 28 million average Australian homes.

    With such high energy demands, some data companies have taken action to keep their carbon emissions in check.

    In Australia, they join a record number of companies attempting to eliminate their footprint and achieve a carbon neutral position.

    The ABC can reveal there was a 30 per cent jump in the number of businesses voluntarily receiving carbon neutral certification in 2018, taking the total number to 81, according to federal Environment Department figures.

    Offsets key to carbon neutral status

    Australia's biggest operator of data centres, NextDC, received carbon neutral certification last year by eliminating or offsetting all the emissions associated with its own operations. But that did not include offsets for companies that use its servers to host information.

    "Whether that's the photos that you store, traffic systems allowing the city to work, train systems, medical information — everything we do is increasingly dependent on servers that are 'in the cloud'. And those servers sit in data centres," said Simon Cooper, chief operating officer of NextDC.

    The company ensures it uses as little electricity as possible to run and cool its own office operations, reduces the use of consumables like paper, and purchases federally approved offsets to cover the rest of its emissions.

    NextDC is now preparing to offer any businesses using cloud services based in its data centres the option to be carbon neutral, too.

    "If everyone hosting servers in [our existing] Sydney data centre bought carbon neutral server space, that would be equivalent to about 10,000 typical homes doing the same," Mr Cooper said.

    "It's like a small town."

    Offsets from the carbon neutral program have accounted for more than 11 million tonnes of CO2 — the equivalent of taking every car off Sydney's roads for a year.

    Department of Environment and Energy spokeswoman Kristin Tilley said the program outlined what companies needed to do to reduce their emissions, and then dictated what sort of offsets were allowable for any remaining part of their carbon footprint.

    Once companies pass the test, they can use a trademarked carbon neutral logo on their products and services as proof of their sustainability.

    Mr Cooper said businesses such as Microsoft and Google are beginning to demand that businesses they work with be sustainable.

    "It's now got to the point where if you're not helping the environment... then you might not be a business we want to work with," he said.

    Travel? You'll need to offset that too

    Another company recently to receive carbon neutral certification is Intrepid Travel, which offsets trips and 40 different offices.

    Leigh Barnes from Intrepid said the company became carbon neutral in 2010, but decided to get official certification last year.

    "We measured our outputs as a business and then we went around looking for reductions, minimising the number of flights in our trips, using public transport where possible," he said.

    "We put in place efficiency measures around light bulbs … And then reduced the number of brochures we printed."

    The remaining emissions, predominantly from customers' travel, were offset through a number of investments, including solar projects in Mauritius and wind projects in Mexico.

    Mr Barnes said Intrepid planned to go beyond zero impact, which would involve reducing and offsetting emissions further and trying to influence government policy.

    Although those actions have led to some backlash on social media for being "a political stance rather than environmental", Mr Barnes said the approach had been welcomed by customers.

    "People want to do business with companies that are doing good," he said.

    You can also go to a carbon neutral venue

    Some of Australia's most iconic organisations received carbon neutral certification in 2018, including both Taronga Zoo and the Sydney Opera House.

    For the Opera House, despite being nearly 50 years old, carbon neutrality was made a little easier by the original design of the building by Jorn Utzon, who built sustainability into its foundations.

    The Opera House uses seawater from Sydney Harbour to control temperature in the building, which lowers its reliance on electricity.

    "Every year we calculate our carbon footprint, and then we offset our residual emissions, which is after we look at our investment in reducing our energy," said Emma Bombonato, the manager of environmental sustainability at the Opera House.

    Matt Drum is the chief of consultancy NDEVR Environmental, which works with companies, including NextDC and Intrepid, to help them obtain carbon neutrality certification.

    He said many clients, who may have once been reluctant to take action on climate change, were looking to dowhat they could to try to counter Australia's growing emissions.

    "We are heading in completely the wrong direction," Mr Drum said.

    "Our emissions should be decreasing towards 2030, [but] as an economy, they're increasing."

    Businesses are going carbon neutral, but they don't have to

    Mr Drum said the voluntary emission reductions made under the carbon neutral program outweighed the Government's only mandatory emissions reduction scheme, known as the "safeguard mechanism".

    "The voluntary program is creating three times more activity in the carbon offsetting space than the mandatory program is at the moment," he said.

    Mr Cooper said that as a publicly listed company NextDC needed a strong business case to justify the investment required to go carbon neutral.

    "There was no question of its benefit to the business," he said.

    "Our shareholders … are increasingly [asking if] the businesses they are investing in [is] operating sustainably."

    With nearly $3 trillion invested with super funds, Australians have increasingly pushed funds to consider how their investments are impacting the environment.

    For the Opera House, which is government owned, the motivation was different, Ms Bombanato said.

    "We decided to be carbon neutral to make sure that we're inspiring the community to contribute to a more sustainable future," she said.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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