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What are server makers really doing to and for the climate?

They paint themselves as eco-saints, but the numbers tell another story

Every year the likes of Dell, HPE, Lenovo, and others trot out their annual environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reports and boast to the world how responsible they are.

These reports are often filled with stock images of happy employees, big colorful illustrations of the various initiatives they've undertaken over the past year to clean up their act and lessen their impact on the climate.

Buzzwordy claims like carbon neutrality, net-zero emissions, or 100 percent renewable energy make it sound like these companies are getting greener by the year and are finally taking climate change seriously.

On closer inspection, however, these companies' numbers often tell a very different story, and in some cases shows their greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse, not better, in spite of their lofty sustainability goals.

Just how green are they?

To get a sense of just how ambitious their sustainability goals really are and to find out who's actually the greenest of the bunch, we dug into the latest ESG reports from Dell, HPE, and Lenovo [PDFs].

When it comes to ambition, HPE talks a big game. The company recently revised its net-zero green house gas (GHG) emissions target earlier this year to 2040, a full 10 years ahead of Dell or Lenovo.

However, the vendors' ambitions don't put into perspective just how hard they'll have to work to get there. When you take into consideration their carbon footprints this becomes obvious, and even after accounting for market share, it's Lenovo that takes the lead, not Dell or HPE.

Taking the vendors at their word, Lenovo reported contributing 7,269 metric tons of scope 1 CO2 emissions – greenhouse gas emissions for which the vendor is directly responsible for – during its 2020-21 fiscal year. That's less than a quarter of the scope 1 emissions reported by HPE (30,302 metric tons) and more than six times less than Dell Technologies (45,600 metric tons).

However, scope 1 emissions are only part of the equation and don't take into account the indirect impact these companies have on the environment simply by doing business. For example, scope 1 doesn't consider emissions produced by the utilities the OEMs get their power from. For that, you need to look at the vendors' scope 2, or indirect emissions.

The vendors' market-based, scope 2 emissions tells a similar story, with Lenovo holding a strong lead over its larger rivals. As of its latest annual report, Lenovo claims it contributes just 21,519 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. By comparison, HPE and Dell reported contributing 132,468 metric tons and 158,100 metric tons of scope 2 emissions respectively.

Even when using the less favorable location-based scope 2 reporting method, which takes into consideration the average emissions intensity of the actual utilities powering vendors' facilities, Lenovo still holds a substantial lead over HPE, while Dell didn't report numbers for this category.

The final category of emissions is by far the largest, and accounts for green house gasses generated by the sale of goods and services, the transportation of those services, and the use of those products over their lifetimes. These scope 3 emissions are also the murkiest of the bunch as they are usually presented as a category of emissions for which there is little if any consistency in how OEMs report these numbers.

To this end, Dell and HPE recently revised their scope 3 reporting methodology as of their latest ESG reports, making it even more difficult to draw meaningful comparisons here.

The road to net-zero emissions

When it comes to mitigating their impact on the climate and achieving their net-zero emissions goals on schedule, the vendors' strategies are remarkably similar.

For instance, all three OEMs are actively sourcing larger quantities of power from renewable sources like wind, hydroelectric, and solar.

Dell plans to source 75 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030, while HPE plans to "eliminate" fossil fuels by the end of the decade.

However, it should be noted that the power that actually keeps the factory floors running isn't always renewable, despite what the OEMs will tell you. While some power may be generated using solar panels on site, most of the power is delivered by local utilities, which may or may not offer renewable power in the region. As such, many vendors have taken to offsetting their power consumption using renewable energy credits (RECs).

HPE purchased 209,551 RECs, each worth the equivalent of 1MWh of power in 2021, and to date has deployed more than 1,100MWh of renewable energy at its various locations around the globe. All told, the company consumed approximately 640GWh of power a year, as of its latest report.

By comparison, Dell consumes just over a 1 trillion watts of power a year, with roughly half of that coming from renewables, and 1,400MWhs being produced on site. Meanwhile, Lenovo consumes 313GWh a year, with just under 10GWh coming from solar power.

While renewable energy can help to offset and even eliminate scope 1 and 2 emissions, tackling scope 3 emissions remains a much trickier prospect for these vendors.

One of the ways OEMs are addressing this challenge is by making systems lighter and more power efficient, as well as using renewable and/or recycled packaging. For example, Dell claims 90.2 percent of the packaging made across its portfolio is from recycling and renewable materials.

Lenovo this month announced a partnership with Maersk to ship its PCs, smart devices, and infrastructure products from China, the Asia Pacific, and Europe on ships powered by biofuels. Maersk claims its biofuels contribute 80 percent less CO2 to the atmosphere compared to fossil fuels.

Despite these efforts, the numbers don't lie and while Dell, HPE, and Lenovo have all made a sizable dents in their scope 1/2 emissions over the past two to four years, they have all struggled to keep their scope 3 emissions in check.

These vendors are actively trying to reduce their impact on the climate but it's clear they still have a long way to go if they're to meet their zero-emissions goals. ®

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