The heavy carbon footprint of a server lifecycle

Capturing the overall environmental impact of a product requires adopting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, which accounts for all activities from the material extraction through to the End-of-Life of the product.
Few studies of this type are available for data center IT equipment. One of them has been published by Dell and covers the LCA of the Dell PowerEdge R740 server. For this case study, a specific configuration of the PowerEdge R740 series has been analyzed, considering two scenarios of assembly and use, one in the EU and the other one in the US.
Six are the considered impact categories: Abiotic Depletion, Acidification Potential, Eutrophication Potential, Ozone Layer Depletion Potential, Photochemical Ozone Creation Potential, and Global Warming Potential (GWP). Detailed results are presented for GWP, which is the most used impact category due to the current focus on climate change.

According to the study, the manufacturing phase and the 4-year use phase make up around 98% of the total GWP of the server. Impacts due to transport to the customer and the disposal site are negligible, while the End-of-Life results in a net benefit (approximately -2%) over the server LCA, thanks to the avoided impacts due to recycling of some parts.

Assembly and using the server in the US causes a 25% higher overall GWP compared to the EU scenario. This is mainly because the carbon intensity of the electricity consumed by the server is higher in the US.

However, the probably most interesting results of Dell’s study come from the analysis of the manufacturing phase, which covers material extraction and processing, production of components, and transport to the assembling site of the server. This phase causes 50% of the total server GWP in the EU scenario (40% in the US one). As shown in the graph below, SSDs manufacturing is the most carbon-intensive process (over 80% of the emissions related to the manufacturing of the server), followed by PWB production (18%, considering both the mainboard and the other types of PWBs). Components containing electronics are therefore responsible for 99% of the server production emissions, despite representing only 30% of the server weight. This is because of their content of precious metals, as well as the high energy consumption, wastes, and emissions related to the production of these parts.

To get a deeper insight into the LCA of the Dell PowerEdge R740 server, read the report of the study commissioned by Dell to thinkstep. 

Contribution of the production of different modules to the global warming potential (GWP) of the Dell R740 – EU Scenario
Source: Life Cycle Assessment of Dell R740 – thinkstep on behalf of Dell, 2019