Climate Change

Data Sovereignty in the Era of Climate Change

Data centres are crucial for a nation’s technological progress and are essential for e-government, innovation, entrepreneurship, decent work, and economic growth. However, climate change poses a significant threat to data centres, with rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changing environmental conditions posing significant threats to their reliability and sustainability.

Data centres require a temperature range of 65°F to 80°F (18°C to 27°C) and need to be climate controlled around other factors like relative humidity. This results in massive amounts of energy and water being guzzled up by data centres. In just eight years, data centre IP traffic had grown tenfold, accounting for 1% of global electricity consumption, more than the total electricity consumption of Thailand.

Despite improved energy efficiency, this growth accounted for a 25% spike in global energy use. Additionally, keeping data centres cool guzzles up water and energy, placing stress on regions that will become increasingly drought-prone and water-scarce as climate change intensifies.

CBRE’s Global Data Center Trends 2023 report notes record-low vacancy rates in data centres, driven by the rapid growth in AI, streaming, self-driving cars, and other emerging technology applications. Despite these challenges, the world’s appetite for data centre capacity remains high, highlighting the need for robust and reliable infrastructure to support the digital future.

The Asia Pacific data centre market is expected to grow 12.2% between 2020-24, with Southeast Asia alone growing at 12.9%. This growth is driven by data sovereignty regulations, which include data localisation mandates for sensitive data. National data centre policies focus on the robustness and reliability of e-government services, security and trust in government data collection, and building capacity and shared resources to spur innovation and economic growth.

Developing countries have implemented or are deliberating data centre plans, either as standalone policies or as part of larger incentive packages for digital infrastructure. Countries like India, Vietnam, China, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, Morocco, and Turkey have implemented or are deliberating data centre plans.

Strategies for data centres include steady electricity and water supply, competitive subsidies, but few address potential resource stress and the impact of climate change on the operating environment.

2023 has been the hottest year on record, with extreme weather events impacting the global economy. China’s Eastern Data, Western Computing Plan aims to build energy-efficient data centre clusters for demand-rich Eastern regions, but many of these clusters are expected to face severe flooding if global temperatures continue to increase by 1.5°C -2°C in the coming decade.

Developing countries in the Global South are also vulnerable to drought, with India’s drought-prone regions increasing by 57% since 1997. Much of the data centre infrastructure set to come online in the coming decades will operate in resource-constrained areas and areas at risk of severe flooding, heat, and drought.

Data strategies recognize jurisdiction is not the only prerequisite for data sovereignty, and many developing economies complement regulation with support for data centre infrastructure. However, these policies and strategies are hyper-focused on current demand and must confront the reality of future climate change. Research into greener data centres is one small part of the required response, as they may have to sustain the demand for data centers and the basic needs of the people living there.

Sustainability considerations can be weaved into the ongoing global conversation on digital public infrastructure (DPI), which could help reduce data redundancy and ensure the robustness and reliability of e-government services. The Indian G20 presidency launched a Global Digital Public Infrastructure Repository to help G20 members and observers sustainably build and deploy their own DPIs.

Companies and governments must invest in data center capacity outside of traditional hubs to distribute environmental risks. National government incentives, such as subsidies, may be one lever to attract data centers to non-traditional hubs, but projections of water demand and extreme weather events must be complemented to make these new hubs sustainable.

Climate change is significantly impacting data sovereignty initiatives, particularly in data centres crucial for digital development. It is essential for data center strategies to adapt to the changing operating environment in the coming decades to ensure data security.