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The case for data decarbonisation – Part one

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This is the first in a series, by Snowflake, examining the concept of net zero data and how advances in technology can help the world’s largest organisations—especially those which are particularly emissions-intensive like oil and gas—reduce the carbon emissions footprint of their data.

Why Net Zero Matters

Boardrooms and shareholders are becoming more acutely aware of the dangers of global climate change, and they are taking action. In an annual letter to shareholders earlier this year, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink indicated that his firm would avoid investments in companies that “present a high sustainability-related risk”, and put sustainability at the centre of its investment process.1

Managers of the world’s largest corporations across industries are thus taking notice, and they have almost uniformly made environmental sustainability a strategic priority for their firms. Certain industries have gone further than others, with energy and computing businesses receiving increased scrutiny as a result of their energy-intensive nature and growth, respectively.

Net Zero In The Energy And Computing Industries

Investor-held oil and gas (O&G) majors have recently been shown to directly and indirectly account for 29.5% of global emissions, yet they spend only 5% of their investment budgets in renewable and low carbon businesses. Shell has pledged to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2050, and as a part of that effort has committed a $2 billion annual investment into renewable energy and clean technologies. With the recent appointment of CEO Bernard Looney, BP has announced its ambition to achieve net zero on carbon emissions in its operations on the same timescale, and is backing that up with remuneration policies that incentivise emissions reductions.

According to DXC, data centres consume an estimated 3% of global electricity supply, and generate 2% of global emissions—about the same as the entire airline industry. The worst culprits are private corporate data centres, which are designed to meet peak capacity and, therefore, run very low server utilisation rates (10 to 15%). They have largely not adopted the latest technologies or management practices to optimise for energy efficiency. The major cloud service providers perform much better than corporate data centres (typically achieving 65% server utilisation rates); AWS, Azure, and GCP are all on a path to carbon neutrality, enabled mostly by shifting energy inputs to low-carbon renewable sources, offsetting emissions through investment into carbon sinks, and redesigning the management of data centre operations to consume less energy per unit of computing power.

While the O&G majors continue to decarbonise their core businesses, they will look not only at production and distribution operations as areas for improvement, but also at supporting functions and infrastructure. As large consumers of data storage and processing in both their core hydrocarbon and rapidly growing renewable energy businesses, O&G majors have an imminent opportunity to meaningfully advance their net zero ambitions by transforming their data operations, including data processing, data storage, and data analysis, that support their business activities.

In our next post, we’ll explore in detail how these data operations can be decarbonised by adopting a modern database architecture built for the cloud.

You can also discover more on Net Zero Data by visiting: https://www.snowflake.com/net-zero-data

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