Strategies for sustainable, low-carbon federal data centers

A data center in Ashburn, Virginia.

A data center in Ashburn, Virginia. Gerville/Getty Images

COMMENTARY | Reducing emissions and energy consumption will allow agencies to model best practices for allied nations while future-proofing infrastructure against exponential data demands.

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, the growth of data is exponential. The Department of State's new International Cyber & Digital Policy Strategy aims to harness this data revolution by establishing "digital solidarity" and assisting allies in leveraging transformative technologies that generate and process massive amounts of data. However, this technological progress fueled by data comes with a significant environmental cost – by 2026, global data generation is projected to nearly double from 97 zettabytes in 2022 to 181 zettabytes, greatly outpacing the previous decade's data growth rate.

This massive surge in data will drive significantly greater power demands and resource consumption, making eco-friendly and sustainable data center practices not just a noble goal, but an urgent necessity. Federal agencies and their partners must lead the charge in decarbonizing data center infrastructures to meet ambitious climate goals while fueling digital diplomacy and cross-border collaboration.

The scale of the challenge

Data centers consume massive amounts of energy, requiring immense power for storage, computing, cooling systems, and network connectivity. The Information and Communications Technology sector already generates an estimated 3.9% of global carbon emissions, more than industries like aviation. As emerging technologies like AI, blockchain, and the metaverse continue to grow, this footprint will expand exponentially if left unchecked. To mitigate this, the federal government aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% by 2030 through initiatives like transitioning to zero-emission vehicles and using carbon pollution-free electricity​.

The economics of data center decarbonization are also complex. Energy sources, locations, technology platforms, and regulatory environments all influence energy use and carbon impact. Many organizations mistakenly believe moving to the public cloud reduces emissions, when in reality they remain accountable for these Scope 3 emissions.

An opportunity for innovation

This challenge presents an opportunity for federal agencies to pioneer sustainable solutions that can guide digital solidarity efforts. Recent research reveals that leading organizations are achieving dramatic reductions in data center energy usage and emissions by adopting innovative decarbonization strategies.

For example, modernizing data infrastructure by consolidating servers and storage, extending hardware lifecycles, and adopting energy-efficient solutions can reduce carbon emissions by up to 87% compared to legacy systems. The research assessments show these approaches can deliver over 95% reductions in energy bills along with 35% lower carbon footprints. 

Innovative practices like optimizing data management, modernizing processes and applications, leveraging AI-driven efficient cooling systems, and reducing hot spots are also driving substantial gains. 

As the State Department's digital solidarity initiatives assist partners in leveraging technology for economic and social progress, sustainable data center strategies will be crucial. Reducing emissions and energy consumption will allow agencies to model best practices for allied nations while future-proofing infrastructure against exponential data demands. From consolidating decentralized data centers to adopting energy-efficient modern infrastructure and leveraging AI-driven cooling systems, federal agencies have a pivotal role to play, and proactive leadership is critical. 

Ultimately, federal agencies must champion environmental stewardship as a core strategic imperative. This looks like a continual effort to embed it into the organizational culture and decision-making processes, while fostering a mindset of eco-innovation to secure buy-in and collaboration across departments. There are huge bonus points for leveraging the expertise of external partners. 

Just as the State Department is driving a global vision for cyber diplomacy, agencies have the opportunity — and responsibility — to model best practices in decarbonizing data infrastructures. federal agencies, by leading the charge in sustainable data center practices, can not only meet ambitious climate goals but also set a powerful example for digital solidarity. The future of global digital collaboration depends on it.