Energy-hungry data centres already match the aviation industry in terms of their contribution to global warming. Could they be adapted to heat other buildings as standard, wonders Kunle Barker
An article in the Economist last year entitled, ‘Say goodbye to 1.5°C’ made for depressing reading. It claimed we had already lost one of the critical battles in the climate war. The article suggested that we stood little chance of restricting the world’s post-industrial temperature rise to 1.5°C. The only way I could process this news was to ignore it. I convinced myself we were still on target and that the messaging was helpful as it would chivvy us all into focusing on hitting the 1.5°C target.
Sadly, the UN Climate Report released in March confirmed the Economist s conclusion. And this week, scientists have said the 1.5°C threshold is likely to be broken over the next few years.
Even for an eternal optimist like myself, this is worrying and disappointing. After COP26, as I drove back to London in my EV, I felt hopeful and sure that the world would do what was needed to save the planet. Little did I know, as I triumphantly plugged my EV into a supercharger at Rugby services, it was already too late to save the 1.5-degree target.
I’ve written many columns about the critical role the built environment sector could play in averting a climate disaster. To a large extent, as an industry, our intent is clear: we question, campaign, and push each other to do better. However, something sinister may lurk underneath the surface of our hubris.
A recent BBC story about a swimming pool in Exeter that used a data centre as its heat source grabbed my attention. The story reminded me of a train journey I shared with fellow Manser Medal judge, Joe Jack Williams, in which he described using data centres as heat sources in heritage assets. The use of waste heat fascinated me, but the wider application struck me only while reading this BBC article. Could data centres be used as heat sources for homes, schools even entire developments?
Using excess heat is by no means a new idea. The Churchill Gardens estate, which started construction in 1946, used excess heat from Battersea Power Station. However, my research into the topic revealed a surprising fact about the impact on our environment of data centres: They are ‘sleeping giants’ when it comes to CO2 emissions.
Today, data centres account for 2 per cent of the world’s carbon footprint, similar to the aeronautical industry and only 1.6% less than the petrochemical industry. This is worrying enough, but there are predictions that by 2030 data centres will be responsible for more carbon emissions than both those industries combined.
When this sleeping giant awakens, our industry will shoulder the blame because we will have designed and built the structures these carbon goliaths inhabit.
An obvious solution would be to argue for restricting the growth of the data centre industry, but I believe it’s too late for this. In many ways, it has already happened. Our reliance on online payments, AI, cloud storage and so on is already integrated into our society’s fabric, and it is too late to go back.
But there could be a solution. Around 70 per cent of data centres’ energy is used for cooling, and this is set to climb to 80 per cent as machines used for AI and Blockchain operate more efficiently at lower temperatures. Data centres are usually designed on a large scale but perhaps they could be used to heat individual buildings if they were made smaller and supply and demand of this heat were efficiently balanced.
Designing smaller data centres would allow their integration into large-scale developments. Imagine a mini data centre located in each plot of a development, using the excess energy to heat space and water. This would represent a significant carbon saving for all involved.
This concept is not without its challenges. Although data centres produce heat constantly, it’s not very high quality, and even with the best form of heat exchange, you will struggle to get 30 degrees out of the system. But we as an industry must try, must ask ‘what if?’ and must push for rapid innovation. Unlike the adage, ‘the diet begins tomorrow’, it seems we may have already run out of tomorrows.
Kunle Barker is a property expert, journalist and broadcaster
[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]
Nature has had a 3.8 billion years’ head start on humans learning how to solve complex challenges. Humans have been mimicking the natural world to solve the complexities and challenges of the built environment for millennia — from ancient Indian rock-cut architecture in 6000 BCE to Gothic cathedrals.
With the growing realization of how urbanization, industrialization and unfettered economic growth are affecting our world, we must look to nature for sustainability solutions.
Modern building techniques are material-intensive and polluting — it’s responsible for around one-quarter of land system change and 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And with an area the size of Paris being built up each week, we need to do better.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued yet another dire warning and calls out the critical role of the built environment in climate change mitigation. The construction industry has the power to shape a more resilient, nature-positive economy, and nature can show us how: from the city level to the building design level to the material and component level, there’s a wealth of examples from which to learn.
Biomimetic design at the city level
The Mobius project’s futuristic-looking greenhouse showcases just what cities need now: a way to manage a city’s infrastructure system — from waste treatment to the water system, for example — through a closed-loop circular economy approach.
Iguana Architects, the project’s creator, modeled this after the oak tree, one of nature’s brilliant examples that has the potential to reuse its output resources such as materials, energy and water, therefore acting as a closed-loop system and conserving resources. By mimicking a natural ecosystem, Mobius rethinks water treatment, energy generation and waste management. Biological waste, for example, is turned into locally grown food, cutting down on the food miles — or it’s turned into methane to generate electricity for the greenhouse.
Many cities struggle to plant their own food — particularly those in drier regions. The Sahara Forest Project is trying to create life in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, learning from nature’s innovations for desert life. Researchers studied how the Namibian fog-basking beetle survives in such an arid environment, finding that it attracts and collects water droplets from fog and wind to drink. The beetle’s hydrophilic shell allows it to survive in a climate that only receives 1 centimeter of water per year. Based on this finding, the idea of the seawater-cooled greenhouse was born.
That’s not all — solar panels were also arranged to receive light reflected from a mirror to harvest the sun’s power at an exponential rate. Exploration, the architectural firm behind this project, created a 2.4-acre pilot project — such a success that they claim that “a facility with [148 acres] of greenhouses could provide all the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines currently imported into Qatar.” The project has been scaled and successfully implemented in Jordan and Tunisia.
While single creatures have a lot to teach us, so do entire ecosystems. Inspired by the concept of ecological succession, in which the structure of a biological community evolves over time, Jan Kudlicka and his team came up with a plan to regenerate the low-income Rio settlement favela da Rocinha. His plan: organizing the region in vertical levels, with the ground floor for stores, medical offices and other services, the middle layer for living and the rooftops destined for playgrounds, open air cinema and gardens. This optimizes the use of space in a crowded area that cannot grow out but must grow “up,” as space is limited by the mountains above and the city below. The project also seeks to regenerate the structure of existing buildings instead of tearing them down to build new ones — thus saving on materials and minimizing pollution.
Biomimetic buildings: How nature has inspired centuries of architecture
Renowned architects — from Antonio Gaudi to Buckminster Fuller to Frei Otto — have drawn inspiration from nature when dreaming up their buildings. Even the Eiffel Tower is said to have been based on the structure of the human femur. While biomimicry has been on architects’ minds for a while, now it is being explored at a new level.
Recently, inspiration has been garnered from something that appears fragile at first glance. The Eden project, a giant greenhouse inspired by the biblical Garden of Eden, was designed to resemble soap bubbles — optimally positioned in the sun to allow for complete self-heating. Dragonfly wings served as inspiration for the best way to assemble pieces of steel —allowing for a lightweight structure that required fewer carbon emissions to transport from place to place.
Lightweighting is a primary concern in designing the built environment: doing more with less. While hemp and bamboo are standout options, we can also draw inspiration from the abalone shell. Chemically, its composition is similar to that of blackboard chalk, although there’s a key structural difference between the two — the manner in which the shell’s calcium carbonate discs are layered make the formation 3,000 times stronger. By mimicking the discs, we can create strong structures with half the volume of materials, reducing the need for virgin materials in construction. Inspired by these abalone discs, scientists are working towards developing bendable concrete that can extend infrastructure’s service life while reducing costs.
Biomimicry for building materials: Zooming in to the microscopic level
We can narrow down to a microscopic level to learn which other tricks nature has up her sleeve. The lotus leaf, for example, boasts tiny hairs covered with a waxy coating that allows it to stay dry. The lotus leaf’s structure has inspired a protective coating for external areas that is water — and dirt — repellent, decreasing buildings’ need for maintenance. When it rains, the droplets roll off, picking up dirt on the way down. This decreases the need for protective finishings, which are usually toxic and can be harsh on the environment.
Limestone-producing bacteria have also served as inspiration to cut maintenance costs by millions of euros while extending buildings’ lifespans. Hendrick Jonkers, a researcher from TU Delft, was fascinated by the way bones regenerate themselves after being broken, and wanted to translate this into regeneration in the built environment. He discovered that certain bacteria can produce limestone, filling the gaps and cracks that affect concrete structures over time.
From the micro to macro level, nature has the power to inspire
Nature can be used to guide urban planning for sustainable cities, shape individual buildings and even act as a muse for material innovation. We already have an expansive library of solutions — we just have to roll them out at scale.
Given the built environment’s impact, it’s time to get serious about building in a way that harmonizes with, rather than harms, nature. While biomimetic design is definitely not the holy grail towards achieving a regenerative built environment, it could become a source of inspiration. We like to think of ourselves as the most intelligent species — but Mother Earth has many more years of experience and she is happy to share her free intellectual property.
The answer to whether blue is the new green would be in all those opportunities for developing a climate-resilient blue economy. Let us see what in the Middle East Institute are the main insights . . .
Is blue the new green? Opportunities for developing a climate-resilient blue economy in the MENA region
The World Bank defines the blue economy as “the sustainable use of maritime resources for economic growth, jobs, and improved livelihoods while preserving the marine ecosystem’s health.” The aim is to strike a balance between conservation and resource extraction when developing marine-based economies. The blue economy can offer huge potential in the area of climate change mitigation and resilience, given the fact that marine habitats, such as mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows, provide significant protection from erratic climate events, including cyclones and floods.
These key coastal systems sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests. In the case of mangroves and coastal wetlands, they can store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical forests, making them one of the world’s most important natural “carbon sinks.” Despite representing less than 5% of the global land area and less than 2% of the ocean, they sequester carbon at a rate 10 times greater than terrestrial forests, and thereby represent an important nature-based solution for mitigating the effects of climate change. In addition, marine ecosystems provide nursery and breeding grounds for commercial fish, habitat for endangered species such as turtles, staging points for migratory birds, and filter water flowing into seas and oceans. Thus, they also play a key role in ensuring food security and sustaining coastal communities, as well as diversifying livelihoods, including fishing and tourism.
The Middle East and North Africa region boasts vast coastal zones on the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Gulf, and the Atlantic Ocean. These extended coastal environments are rich in marine ecosystems and serve as vital routes for international trade, alongside other economic activities. There are four crucial areas where MENA countries would benefit from developing the blue economy that would aid in reversing natural resource degradation, sustaining inclusive economic development, and building resilience to climate change. These areas include developing renewable energy sources, investing in sustainable aquaculture, decarbonizing maritime transportation, and developing resilient and carbon-neutral tourism.
Developing renewable maritime energy sources
There is enormous untapped potential for blue renewable energy sources in MENA, including well-established sources like offshore wind, as well as nascent technologies such as wave, tidal, current, ocean thermal, and biomass production from algae. All of these renewable sources could contribute to meeting rising energy and electricity demand at a lower cost, achieving energy independence, and helping the region to meet its carbon reduction commitments in a way that aligns with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
For example, wind energy potential is especially high in North African countries, and it is estimated that wind power potential in this region is 34 times greater than that of northern European countries. Morocco, for example, is estimated to have an offshore wind potential of 200 GW, benefiting from average wind speeds of 7.5-9.5 meters per second (m/s) in the south and 9.5-11.0 m/s in the north. Algeria also has tremendous technical wind energy potential estimated at 7,700 GW. To put this in perspective, the total wind capacity in Europe at the end of 2020 was only 216 GW.
Other potential locations for offshore wind farms (where annual wind speeds are greater than 5m/s at 80 meters above sea level) include coasts along the Gulf of Suez and Aqaba in Egypt, Jordan, north-west Saudi Arabia, the south-east coast of Oman, northern Libya, and southern Tunisia. Egypt is something of a regional leader when it comes to building wind farms, with the largest wind farm in the country being a 545-MW facility in Zafarana. In addition, Cairo has plans to expand its wind energy capacity through two memoranda of understanding, one with the Saudi renewable energy developer ACWA to build a 10-GW wind farm and another with the UAE’s Masdar to build a second 10-GW onshore wind farm. These would be the second-largest wind farms in the world behind the Gansu project in China, which has a projected capacity of 20 GW. It is expected that the Masdar onshore wind farm will generate about 48,000 GWh of clean energy a year, offsetting some 23.8 million tons of CO2 emissions — about 9% of the country’s total carbon emissions. Egypt’s plans to add 25 GW of wind power capacity represents a seven-fold increase in its total renewable-energy capacity, which was 3.4 GW at the end of 2021.
Today living in the century of regeneration means valuing Ecosystem Function higher than material things is the paradigm shift that determines whether we understand the meaning of our lives and survive or whether we remain ignorant and selfish and destroy our own habitat trying to gain more wealth or more power.
Sustainability: short-term gains will destroy us all
If humans are to survive and thrive, organizations must learn to become regenerative–a shift that will be nothing short of a rebirth for many, argues Carlos Álvarez Pereira of the Club of Rome. Here he offers advice on how to begin the transformation.
For more than three decades, governments, companies, institutions, and other organizations of all sizes and hues have talked about sustainability. Many have adopted targets based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. A growing number have pledged ambitions to become carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner.
I am not alone in saying that none of this is enough to meet the challenges that confront us. If we wait for most organizations to recognize that we are on the wrong path, major emergencies will continue piling up and produce huge suffering, which the most vulnerable people are already enduring.
If organizations around the world are serious about creating equitable well-being and restoring the health of the biosphere, they need to become regenerative. That means going much deeper and further. It means reconnecting with humanity. And, of course, it means reconnecting with nature.
Becoming regenerative involves replacing the obsession with short-term market returns by the creation of long-term value for all parties, human and non-human. Companies have a pivotal role to play in this transformation. For most, it will require nothing short of their complete rebirth.
In both Limits and Beyond, and Earth for All – A Survival Guide for Humanity, the Club of Rome proposes antidotes to the current malaise and suggests pathways to a better future. Building on the foundations of the Club’s seminal 1972 work The Limits to Growth, which showed how the combined exhaustion of natural resources and massive pollution were pushing humanity towards a cliff edge, Earth for All demonstrates that options exist to save us from self-destruction and create the conditions of decent lives for all in a healthy planet. Limits and Beyond shows that this requires a shift in the way we think and feel, and hence a total transformation of today’s approach to business.
To understand why, it’s important to undertake a reality check of corporate sustainability efforts to date. ESG might sound good in principle, but all too often it ends up being a box-ticking exercise – a “nice to have” rather than a company-defining strategy.
More than a box ticking exercise
One problem is that much of companies’ sustainability efforts have gone in the direction of technicalities and particularly designing metrics. While not entirely useless, this focus on metrics has turned the sustainability imperative into yet another compliance issue. It is something that companies now have to do, not something they have established as a core strategy and an existential purpose.
A second problem is that when sustainability issues get translated into rigid rules and standards instead of nurturing a cultural shift, they become a constraining framework, easily leading companies to continue ticking boxes and remaining compliant for the sake of the tax authorities as well as their shareholders. All of this creates an additional layer of bureaucracy. And if bureaucracy is what’s driving the business, we are all in deep trouble.
“Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on. The gulf between the haves and have-nots is cleaving societies, countries, and our wider world. Epic geopolitical divisions are undermining global solidarity and trust. This path is a dead end. We need a course correction”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres in an address to the General Assembly
Half a century on since The Limits to Growth, humanity is still stumbling down the same path while the house burns. Global warming has accelerated to more than 0.3°C per decade, raising the specter that we will probably overshoot the 1.5°C warming limit that the world agreed to in Paris. Meanwhile, progress on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, now just seven years away from its deadline, remains woefully adrift.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the General Assembly this month: “Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on. The gulf between the haves and have-nots is cleaving societies, countries, and our wider world. Epic geopolitical divisions are undermining global solidarity and trust. This path is a dead end. We need a course correction”
Regenerative organizations offer that course correction. But what is it? And how do companies begin the transformation?
ROME, May 8 2023 (IPS)* – Less than a decade ago, Africa was home to 60-65% of the world’s uncultivated arable land and 10% of renewable freshwater resources, as reported by the African Union in 2016, while concluding that African farmers could feed the world.
Is it still the case?
Droughts are a growing threat to global food production, particularly in Africa. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS
A major consequence is that that very percentage (60-65%) of the world’s uncultivated and arable land is now affected by degradation, with nearly three million hectares of forest lost… every single year.
The steadily advancing degradation and desertification of major African regions have led the continent to build great green walls.
One of them – the Great Green Wall, is the largest living structure on the Planet, one that stretches over 8.000 kilometres across Africa, aiming at restoring the continent’s degraded landscapes and transforming millions of lives in the Sahel, and ushering in a new era of sustainability and economic growth.
Launched in 2007 by the African Union, this African-led Great Green Wall Initiative. The project is being implemented across 22 African countries and is expected to revitalise thousands of communities across the continent.
It is about “helping people and nature cope with the growing impact of the climate emergency and the degradation of vital ecosystems, and to keep the Sahara desert from spreading deeper into one of the world’s poorest regions,” according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Vast tracts of land along the Great Green Wall have already been restored by local communities. And so far, 80% of the 19 billion US dollars have been pledged, as reported by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
But not enough…
The extraneous factors that have been pushing Africa towards the abyss of extremely severe droughts, unprecedented floods, the advancing degradation of its land and water resources, have led this continent on Earth to rush to build more and longer and larger walls.
For instance, the Southern Africa region is currently busy preparing a similar programme, with all 16 countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) committed to accelerating multi-sectoral transformation through a regional initiative inspired by the Great Green Wall in the Sahel, or SADC Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI).
The SADC member countries are: Angola, Botswana, Comoros, DR Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
A wall for Southern Africa
Their Initiative aims to create productive landscapes in the Southern Africa region that contribute to regional socially inclusive economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.
Together with member countries and key partners the goal is to initiate multi sectoral partnerships and to acquire pledges of an indicative 27 billion US dollars by 2025.
10 Million square kilometres at risk of desertification
Covering a total land area of 10 million square kilometres, Southern Africa faces immediate effects of desertification, land degradation and drought, as well as challenges driven by climate change, biodiversity loss, and unsustainable development practices in agriculture, energy and infrastructure sectors, reports the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
“The Great Green Wall is part of a broader economic and development plan – if we restore land but are not able to reap the benefits of that healthy and restored land due to lack of access to renewable energy and infrastructure, hindering access to markets and livelihoods, then we are only halfway there with our vision,” on this said UNCCD’s Louise Baker.
And a great wall for the Middle East
In addition to the above two new natural wonders, there is another one: the Middle East Green Initiative, a regional effort led by Saudi Arabia to mitigate the impact of climate change on the region and to collaborate to meet global climate targets.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, extreme weather events including droughts and heavy rains will become more common in the region if global temperatures continue to increase, according to the Saudi-led project.
A green corridor for East Africa… and elsewhere
In addition to developing an Eastern Africa corridor soon, other similar initiatives under the umbrella of the African Union’s NEPAD are ongoing, such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100).
In 2015, AFR100 was founded in Durban by a group of 10 African countries, each committing to restore a certain number of hectares of degraded landscapes within their borders.
Twenty-eight African countries have now committed to restoring 113 million hectares, which, if achieved, will exceed the initiative’s namesake goal of 100 million hectares across the continent under restoration by 2030.
Not only trees
Forest landscape restoration is more than just planting trees,” said Mamadou Diakhite, leader of the AFR100 Secretariat.
On a continent that is expected to account for half the global population growth by 2050, reducing and sequestering greenhouse gas emissions is a welcome byproduct of returning those natural landscapes to health and profitability; but it’s not the first focus, reported Gabrielle Lipton, Landscape News Editor-in-Chief.
“Restoring landscapes that have been degraded by the effects of climate change and human development through planting trees and encouraging sustainable farming and herding must first and foremost provide food, jobs and homes for people, as well as preserve their cultures that are based on the products of their lands.”
Originally posted on HUMAN WRONGS WATCH: Human Wrongs Watch (UN News)* — Disinformation, hate speech and deadly attacks against journalists are threatening freedom of the press worldwide, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday [2 May 2023], calling for greater solidarity with the people who bring us the news. UN Photo/Mark Garten | File photo…
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