How to protect digital infrastructure against climate threats

With severe weather striking ever more often, many organisations are at last realising that they need effective plans to protect critical infrastructure against climate risks

From the Arctic storm that blasted Texas in February to the 50ºC heatwave that seared the Mediterranean all summer, extreme meteorological events are undeniably growing in both frequency and intensity. 

The conversation about technology and climate has so far been dominated by talk of carbon footprints. We’ve heard much about the CO2 emissions of data centres and the fact that bitcoin mining requires more energy each year than the total consumed by the whole of Argentina. Although extreme weather is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, what tends to be discussed less in the ICT industry is that climate-driven events run both ways. 

In July, for instance, flooding after extreme rainfall not only caused fatalities across Europe. It also brought down Germany’s three main mobile networks, disabling more than 130 base stations in the country’s western states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Back in 2005, a heroic effort by a team led by special forces veteran Michael Barnett to keep a data centre operational during and after Hurricane Katrina meant that New Orleans kept a line to the outside world, even as cell towers were being destroyed by wind and water. In that case, maintaining communications was literally a matter of life and death. Telecoms providers learnt several key lessons from Katrina, with those affected having since reduced their reliance on physical locations. Many players now have their own crisis teams, for instance, which can be deployed to disaster zones to establish emergency comms.

Nonetheless, a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in August about the extent of climate risk suggests that potentially devastating weather-related incidents will become ever more common.

From an infrastructural perspective, this is particularly worrying because key systems are so closely connected, according to Chris Cartwright, chair of the digital panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

“A power outage could bring down both a transport network and a communications system, for instance. It could also affect local hospitals and schools,” he explains. “This is the real concern: to what extent do you create interoperability, knowing that a single point of failure could knock out many services?”

Luis Neves is CEO of the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GESI), which works with multinational ICT firms and other large organisations to provide impartial guidance and resources for “achieving integrated social and environmental sustainability through ICT-enabled transformation”. He believes that most businesses aren’t adequately prepared for the climate-related risks they face. 

Extreme weather events, Neves says, “are happening more frequently, but they are unpredictable. We do not know when or where they will happen. Even with one month’s notice, you cannot create the kind of infrastructure necessary to avoid risk.”

In 2014, the GESI and the International Telecommunications Union published a joint assessment of climate risks and suggested several mitigation measures in a research report called Resilient Pathways. They recommended creating redundant backbone networks for service areas that would be resilient to all extreme weather; relocating central offices away from coastal areas and potential future floodplains; developing alternative telecoms technologies that promise to increase reliability; and reassessing standards and industry-wide regulation. Progress since then has been slow, according to Neves. To his knowledge, no one company has ticked all of these boxes.

Yet there is a growing acknowledgment, given the recent run of extreme weather events in Europe, that such matters are overdue for consideration. At the end of July, the European Commission published a “climate-proofing” checklist for new infrastructure projects, which needs to be followed by organisations seeking a slice of the €17.5bn (£15bn) that the EU holds in its so-called just transition fund for more sustainable development. 

Another European Commission work in progress is the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities. This classification system will set out the conditions that infrastructure projects, among other programmes, will have to meet in order to be defined as sustainable. Investors are keeping a close eye on this development, reports Raffaele Della Croce, senior economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). 

For change to happen, you need a shock. That’s what Covid has provided: a reality check on the way we do things

The OECD is set to publish its own infrastructure report at the UN’s COP26 conference on climate change in November. The document, which complements G20 recommendations on maintenance, will suggest that organisations adopt a radical new approach to creating, maintaining and operating infrastructure. Among other things, this will entail creating infrastructure with end-to-end integration and using smart maintenance techniques to manage potential problems proactively. 

“For change to happen, you need a shock. That’s what Covid has provided: a reality check on the way we do things,” Della Croce says. “Infrastructure has not changed and clearly was not functioning, but now there’s a recognition of having to catch up to face reality. The change needs to be radical. If we’re only doing it at the margins, it won’t be enough.”

Cara Labuschagne is senior analyst for adaptation at the Climate Change Committee, an independent body that publishes a yearly assessment of UK climate risk. She notes that the national adaptation programmes of the UK’s devolved nations acknowledge the risks facing the digital sector. But she adds: “In general, there’s still a lack of evidence, certainly in the public realm, of specific actions that are taking place that will manage climate hazard risks.” 

The committee’s latest Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk report, published in June, notes that “alarmingly… the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation under way has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality.”

Labuschagne says: “We aren’t seeing a plan or process to manage the long-term risks. There’s a need for a set of resilience standards for the ICT sector covering climate change risks and adaptation actions. It would include requirements for providers to assess their climate risks under a region and to think about interdependencies with other critical infrastructure, and the actions to take to reduce and monitor risk.”

Abhijit Sunil, analyst for infrastructure and operations at the Forrester consultancy, says that he has heard very little from the ICT sector addressing climate threats directly, although sustainability has become a consideration for many organisations. But he adds that climate preparedness and adaptation is likely to move up the industry’s agenda after COP26. 

Some straightforward opportunities exist for business leaders to make more sustainable choices, says Sunil, suggesting that enterprises associate sustainability with efficiency by, for instance, signing long-term energy contracts with utility firms to create price certainty. He adds that firms with many physical assets should consider how their data centres can be built around natural cooling mechanisms, or use machine learning to optimise energy consumption. 

To mitigate risk, cloud computing company PagerDuty has designed its systems so that they are sufficiently dispersed to enable a failover (the facility to switch to back-up systems with minimal disruption) to be tested and automated easily, says its senior director of infrastructure, Paula Thrasher. The company’s engineering function is designed to ensure continuity in the case of natural disasters. It isn’t tied to a specific data centre or network point of presence, so it can use its ‘work anywhere’ practice to its advantage.

All things considered, climate risk is becoming clearer for businesses, investors and customers alike. And, while it would have been better to have developed adaptation programmes 10 or 20 years ago, things are at least heading in the right direction, according to Della Croce. 

“It’s not the right speed. Progress should be faster, we all agree,” he says. “But it is definitely moving.”