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Among other measures, the government is encouraging operators to locate data centres in regions with suitable climate and rich renewable energy. Photo: Shutterstock

Climate change: China’s data centres and telecoms networks in Beijing’s sights as key targets for decarbonisation

  • China now lists the digital-infrastructure sector alongside traditional heavy-emitting industries when it comes to decarbonisation
  • Companies are responding to Beijing’s push, with examples including wind-powered data centres and an underwater facility using seawater for cooling
The carbon footprint of China’s digital infrastructure industry is under increased scrutiny, as Beijing adjusts policies and pushes the power-hungry sector to decarbonise in pursuit of the national goal of carbon neutrality by 2060.

China now lists the sector as a key decarbonisation target alongside traditional heavy-emitting industries, and has ordered the country’s data centre operators and telecoms providers to conserve water and electricity, to locate facilities in areas with plentiful renewable energy and to develop lower-power facilities and equipment.

The sector’s current carbon footprint is small compared with industries such as power generation and transport. But its future impact on climate change cannot be overlooked given the rapidly growing use of digital technologies in China, according to infrastructure developers.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) underlined the sector’s marching orders last month at a press briefing in Beijing. The ministry will strengthen policies to guide the sector towards green and low-carbon development, such as encouraging companies to deploy data centres in regions with suitable climate and rich renewable energy, said Huang Libin, MIIT spokesman. Meanwhile the industry must accelerate its innovation and implementation of high-efficiency, energy-saving equipment, he said.

Workers perform maintenance on a 5G tower at Shougang Park in Beijing on December 1, 2021. The energy efficiency of 5G base stations has improved by 20 per cent since the 5G roll-out began in 2019. Photo: AFP

The government push indicates foresight, according to Jonathan Berney, chief operating officer at Chayora, a Hong Kong-based data centre developer with a primary focus on China.

“I think it’s an indication that the Chinese government is seeing significant growth in demand with respect to the digital economy,” he said. “And unless China pushes the supply market to deliver environmentally efficient data centres, it will become a significant problem.”

Carbon emissions from digital infrastructure in China – home to the world’s largest 5G network and one of the world’s biggest data-centre industries – are projected to increase by 152 per cent to 310 million tonnes in 2035, compared with 2020, according to a report published by Greenpeace last April. The sector is expected to consume 782 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity by 2035, or about 5 to 7 per cent of national power consumption, compared with 2.7 per cent in 2020, the environmental group said.


China’s first hybrid photovoltaic plant generates power day and night using solar and tidal power

China’s first hybrid photovoltaic plant generates power day and night using solar and tidal power

Last October, China’s central economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), included data centres as a key sector for future energy conservation and carbon reduction works for the first time, alongside eight traditional industries including power, steel and construction.

The NDRC ordered that the average power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratio of new large and mega-sized data centres should be reduced to below 1.3, with some below 1.25 by 2025. An ideal PUE ratio of 1.0 indicates that 100 per cent of a facility’s power is delivered to the computing equipment, though it does not speak to a facility’s overall power usage.

In August, seven state agencies including MIIT and NDRC jointly issued another plan targeting the information and telecommunication industry’s low-carbon development, ordering the energy efficiency of 5G base stations to be improved by more than 20 per cent by 2025.

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The MIIT’s Huang touted progress on both 5G efficiency and PUE at last month’s briefing, and the policy pronouncements are also motivating companies in the sector to act.

“We’re seeing a sense of urgency by operators across the industry to reduce the impact of their operations on the environment,” said TJ Faze, head of ESG strategy and engagement at Vertiv, a maker of data-centre equipment, in a statement on Monday. “The focus on operational efficiency has enabled significant improvements, but now new strategies and more intelligent systems are required to drive down emissions and water use as the industry continues to grow.”

Chayora has just signed an agreement with Goldwind, China’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, to provide up to 60 megawatts of wind power for its Tianjin campus, and is planning a similar agreement for its campus in Shanghai, according to Berney.

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Highlander, a Shenzhen-listed maritime tech firm, is building an undersea data centre for commercial use in southern Hainan province. Slated for completion in 2025, the facility will take advantage of the consistently cool seawater to cut cooling costs.

In data transmission networks, Chinese telecoms giant ZTE released in February its GreenPilot solution to help reduce mobile network energy consumption through the use of solar panels, lithium batteries and artificial intelligence.

A major challenge for the greening of digital infrastructure remains its access to China’s renewable-energy supply, according to Chayora’s Berney.

China had the world’s largest renewable generation capacity in 2021, yet renewables accounted for less than 3 per cent of its total electricity consumption.

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“One of the big opportunities in China is how we can tap into that renewable power source that’s available but is underutilised right now,” he said.

Making use of renewable capacity requires a higher degree of intelligence and digitisation within the power grid itself, said Chen Zhiping, vice-president and spokeswoman at ZTE.

“On the other hand, the digital infrastructure can also work as an enabler of the power sector to make a smart transformation and help provide more green energy to the grid,” she said.