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Bríd Smith: Data centres are the elephant in the room when it comes to climate policy

The People Before Profit TD says Ireland’s society and climate will not gain anything from data centres.

Bríd Smith People Before Profit TD

Updated Jun 25th 2021, 9:50 AM

LAST WEEK THE Dáil passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill.

The scale of the Green Party’s failure to address key climate issues such as Just Transition will come as a severe disappointment to many climate activists. The Bill is littered with get-out clauses, vague language and prioritises competitiveness and attraction to investors as much as any real climate-related items.

But when Covid restrictions end the climate movement will get back on the streets and will demand real action.

On the same day, I introduced People Before Profit’s newest attempt to address the climate crisis with a Bill that would curb data centre building and halt LNGs and fracked gas infrastructure in legislation.

The next battleline in the fight against catastrophic climate change will be the mushrooming of data centres across the country and the continued threat of LNGs and fracked gas imports.

There are over 70 data centres currently operating and there is planning permission for dozens more. These installations would scupper any chances of reducing our GHG emissions in line with our international climate commitments.

Mushrooming data

In the last year alone, there has been a 25% growth in these centres. Within nine years these centres will consume 30% of the state’s total electricity demand.

To give you an idea of how out of kilter this is with the global picture, data centres consume an average of 2% of electricity globally. And even with predicted growth, no other country will have such a preponderance of them on their electricity grid.

There is a concerted effort to greenwash this industry. We are told they will be powered by renewable energy, that they are becoming more efficient every day, and that they will power the hi-tech transition we need. These claims are largely nonsense.

They may not have chimney stacks, but these centres have huge carbon footprints. Many will use their own gas turbines, while others may very well gobble up the on and offshore wind we so desperately need to make the switch away from fossil fuels in wider society.

Opponents of People Before Profit’s proposals make some very familiar arguments. We need these centres; they have to go somewhere, and Ireland can host them in a more eco-friendly way than other regions. These arguments will be recognisable to anyone who has argued against fossil fuel extraction or the growing numbers in our dairy and beef herds.

Unsustainable

It is true that data centres are an essential part of modern living and can bring immense benefits to society.

The same can be said of almost everything from cars to the food business. But the scale and spread of them has nothing to do with what is beneficial to the whole of society or individuals. They are neither sustainable nor essential.

The water needs of these centres are as vast as their power needs. Figures shown by the Sunday Business Post note that the average data centre uses a lower estimate of 500,000 litres per day with the potential for that figure to rise to five million litres per day.

There is also a massive cost to the state in trying to facilitate these centres by rejigging its electricity network. The Irish Academy of Engineering has estimated data centre expansion will require almost €9 billion in new energy infrastructure and add 13% at least to Ireland’s carbon emissions by 2030.

Supporters of the industry will try to sway us by talking of the massive investments that accrue to the state. But the longer-term impact and benefit are doubtful. These vast warehouses do not largely provide plentiful nor sustainable employment and the entire hi-tech sector here is not dependent on our continued willingness to be used as the data centre capital of the globe.

Ironically, as Ireland becomes the data capital of the globe, we still have school kids without access to basic devices or internet coverage and we still have a health system with outdated cybersecurity.

The climate crisis is real and worsening. It means we have crucial choices to make if we are to achieve our international commitments and an ever-shortening window of time. It is ironic and maddening that many who will lecture ordinary people on the need for carbon taxes and personal behavioural changes are so unwilling to curb the corporate rush for data centres or question corporate interest and behaviour.

The push for data centres is not about catering to people’s personal consumption or demands. It is driven by profit and the needs of giant corporations not simply by consumer behaviours.

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Other states and cities have had to look at their policies and the sustainability of facilitating unbridled developments like these. Ireland needs to seriously question them too if we are to have any hope of reaching our climate targets in the next decade.

Bríd Smith is a People Before Profit TD for Dublin South Central.

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Bríd Smith  / People Before Profit TD

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