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Climate Change

dry and wet ground

I was once asked during an interview: ​“Looking back over your 30-year career, do you have any regrets?” I considered the question thoughtfully and responded that while I wish I had done certain things differently, I don’t believe you can live your life looking in the rearview mirror, because the action is happening in front of you. However, about ten years after that interview, I realized I do have a regret, and it’s a whopper of a regret, folks. Moreover, it’s a regret that is shared by many people in my generation. In some ways, I’m ashamed to look at my beautiful daughters because of it: climate change. 

The Alliance recently met with industry partners to discuss their plans for the future and how we can work together to better support Canada’s Digital Research Infrastructure (DRI) ecosystem. In my opening address, I left them with many thoughts and considerations but summarized with one key message: ​“Industry is part of the Digital Research Alliance of Canada.” There were several presentations on corporate social responsibility and how industry is taking a serious look at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering their carbon footprint. Many industry partners described more energy efficient products on the horizon, while others described making more efficient use of energy for data centres. 

Recent predictions state that the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for 3.2 percent of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025 and they could consume no less than a fifth of global electricity. By 2040, storing digital data is set to create 14 percent of the world’s emissions, around the same proportion as the US does today.1 Three percent of total worldwide carbon emissions in less than a couple of years doesn’t sound like much to me, but to put it into context, data centres have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry. This of course includes huge data centres from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook, but also those at the service of researchers. 

I am often asked why the Alliance and its regional DRI partners focus so much on energy consumption. The answer is easy: data centres are power-hungry. With computational workflows becoming more and more complex, and reliant on larger and larger datasets, you require ever more electricity to cool your systems. As an illustrative example, one of our supercomputers (Niagara at the University of Toronto SciNet) spends roughly $250,000 per month on electricity. A dear friend of mine, John Morton, Director of Technology at SHARCNET, said to me: ​“Supercomputers produce two things well: science and heat”. But this is obviously not a problem restricted to research data centres. Indeed, many infrastructure providers have tackled this problem head on. For example, Google’s DeepMind has developed AI that teaches itself to minimize the use of energy to cool their data centers, reducing its energy consumption by 35%. Microsoft has committed to be carbon negative by 2030. And Amazon has committed to powering its global infrastructure using 100 percent renewable energy. 

Some of our national partners have also shared with us how they will make more efficient use of energy for their data centres. For example, Université Laval re-directs the heat from their data centre to heat the campus swimming pool, gymnasium and other buildings thereby reducing their heating costs. Calcul Quebec, has recently set-up the energy efficient Narval cluster (ranked 21st in the list of GREEN500). Considering the carbon footprint of some computational workflows, like big data and AI, all these efforts are foundational for Canada’s Climate Plan. (Just as an example, training a machine learning model can emit more than 626,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of one passenger flying 150 times from New York to San Francisco and back!). In short, energy consumption, its environmental and financial costs must be considered in any plans regarding data centres, and these data centres (whether funded by the Alliance directly or indirectly) are a massive consideration in our growth plans for Canada’s DRI strategies. 

To summarize, I look forward to advancing these interesting ideas in the Alliance’s strategic plan. I look forward to exerting our leadership influence in Canada’s DRI ecosystem by introducing funding incentives for technologies and data centres that offer environmentally friendly alternatives. And I look forward to the rich conversations we will have with our partners that will allow me to look at my daughters and say: we’re going to help fight climate change. 

- Nizar Ladak, CEO