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Irish Times: Maybe Ireland should close down data centres

Data centres, much like cars, air conditioning, farting cows, home heating, air travel, global shipping, and making anything out of wood, are fast becoming a bete noir for Ireland’s climate movement, summed up by an official denunciation of the fast-growing sector in the pages of the Irish Times yesterday, penned by Una Mullally. Here is what she had to say:

As data centres become a massive drain on Irish electricity and water, at what point will someone shout “Stop”? Ireland is an attractive location for data centres because of our low-level seismic activity and relatively mild climate, with a lack of extreme temperatures, although climate change will continue to affect the latter….

…. Over the past year alone, the number of operational data centres here increased 25 per cent. There are now 70 operational data centres here. The Greater Dublin Area is now the largest hub for data centres in Europe. Amazon’s latest plans for Mulhuddart will need the same amount of electricity as a small city….

…. The Irish Academy of Engineering has estimated that the rapid expansion of data centres we’re seeing will require €9 billion in new energy infrastructure, adding an extra 1.5 million tonnes to our carbon emissions by the end of the decade.

The whole, article is here and, as always, you should be sure to read it, so that you know we’re not misrepresenting her views or argument.

That argument, such as it is, is very straightforward. Ireland is investing heavily in data centres, bringing in investment from global companies attracted by our relatively cool climate, educated workforce, and, presumably, some tax incentives and grants. The problem she notes is that these centres have massive demands for electricity – more than almost any other endeavour you could imagine. That electricity has to be generated, creating carbon emissions, and that in turn makes it impossible for Ireland to meet the absurd (my characterisation, not hers) climate targets that the country has set for itself.

Nothing she says in her piece is untrue. It is all true. The problem is simply that her argument is absurd.

Ireland meeting, or not meeting, her global emissions targets will have the sum total of zero impact on the global climate. Taking climate theory at its word, the only way the global catastrophe that has been predicted now for forty years can be avoided is if global emissions fall. Ireland could shut down tomorrow, and it would make no difference, if other countries do not make drastic cuts of their own.

The problem is that Una’s argument fails to notice that companies prevented from opening data centres in Ireland are not going to just shrug, and decide not to open data centres. They will simply find another country to open them in. And the emissions, believe it or not, may actually be greater as a result. Why? Because Ireland has a mild, cool, climate, the cooling needs of the data centres is less than it would be in, say, Spain. Cooling is one of the major demands these places put on electricity.

Indeed, one way to actually reduce global emissions is to be energy efficient. The reason that companies want to locate these things in Ireland in the first place is that we are one of the most energy efficient places on the planet to build them. Because we are cooler and wetter, it costs much less to run them – and, in turn, generates fewer emissions – than if they were in California.

Una makes one more point, which is that Ireland meeting its emissions targets is a matter of reputation, and that we will become a “climate pariah” if these companies and centers cause us to miss our emissions targets. Will we? And if we do, what will be the consequences? Companies might not invest here? It seems an odd argument to say we should turn away investment lest companies decide in future not to invest here.

The whole thing is a very weak argument, and it is an argument against Ireland’s national interest. It is notable, of course, that many of these data centres are going to parts of the country which really need investment and jobs – the midlands, the west, and so on. Una can very comfortably sit in her armchair in Dublin and advocate refusing investment into those parts of the country, on the grounds that meeting our climate targets will make her fellow global citizens smile.

It hardly matters to her, it seems, that it would not help the climate, and that it would harm the country.

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