As I sat on my seventh Zoom call of the day, my mind drifted into thinking about how my working habits have changed over the last year. As we entered lockdown in 2020, there was a palpable enthusiasm as we all began to adopt new behaviours. Not ‘going to work’ became legitimised by the pandemic, and we suddenly became digitally enabled.
This all changed so quickly that most of us barely noticed the major cultural shifts in how we all engaged with one another. We had evolved, and not just in our workplace culture; reticence had given way to digitally enabled lifestyles previously “not for us”, but now key to remain connected with other human beings.
The need for physical proximity to centres of activity and leisure no longer seemed important. Decisions about where we lived and how much we would suffer in the consequential commute to work had changed, and cities were clearly anxious about losing their meaning and worth.
So, we must ask ourselves, do we take Morpheus’ “safe” blue pill, carry on but remain naïve to the fundamentally different nature of our new normal? This option is alluring. We can be locally connected and yet cosmopolitan, we can be professionally engaged whilst fully invested in home life, we can be both rural and urban in our experiences.
But there is a serpent in the garden. The pandemic has accelerated our concerns about climate change exponentially – yet arguably our awareness of the environmental cost of these new digital lifestyles remains hidden.
Let’s look at the evidence. A one-hour video call generates 157.3g of carbon dioxide emissions, far more than the 6.2g generated by a non-video call. Perhaps that does not initially seem like a lot. The Resources Conservation and Recycling Journal did the maths, however. If the average home worker has 15 one-hour meetings a week, their carbon footprint is a hefty 9.4kg by the end of the month.
That is just one person; millions are using these calls every day. Analysis forecasts the global carbon footprint could soar by 34.3million tonnes if remote working continues till the end of 2021. That increase in carbon emissions would require a brand-new forest twice the size of Portugal to sequester all the emitted CO2.
Yet even if we all knew that turning the camera off could cut environmental impact by 96%, would we leave it on to fulfil that fundamental human need of connection? Most of us would undoubtedly say yes.
The solution has to go back to the source where all this CO2 generation is being produced: the digital infrastructure. It comes down to us, as architects, engineers and design experts, to create viable, sustainable solutions that deplete this mammoth sized digital footprint.
Chris Jones, a Technical Director at engineering consultancy Hydrock, believes that it is within our grasp to help developers and operators of our digital infrastructure – most specifically data centres – to be more energy efficient. Through the recovery of waste heat, they can become an enabler for low carbon energy networks.
We need to start considering data centres as a “thermal battery”, according to Chris. We need to use them as a heat source. Many data centres already run-on renewable energy, but still produce a significant amount of heat. The key in the early stages of design is to factor in the technology to capture this waste heat and re-use it efficiently.
Hydrock has worked on a 120 MW scheme in the Thames Valley which will successfully recover 20MW of heat continuously, which is enough to heat to power 9,000 homes. The technology and the process exist, and the opportunity to create value is real. Now we have to make it commonplace.
Finally, we need to give data centres that certain “edge”. Centres that are integrated to the “edge” of communities provide quicker intelligence back to devices. The same speed is not achievable from a remote function. The transition from massive resilience infrastructure to small scalable components creates the real potential for repurposing of the existing built environment. Moreover, suddenly the data centre is more than just a tool for data storage: it is an enabler for local heat networks.
If we can all get our heads together – videos off for now of course – we can stop the digital carbon footprint right in its tracks, ensuring our new hybrid lifestyles can continue without us inadvertently zooming our way into a climate crisis.