Widely regarded as one of the most important policy issues in today’s political, financial and social sphere, climate change is slowly changing the way we live and operate in our day-to-day lives. Hyve Managed Hosting co-director, Jake Madders, looks at the impact cloud computing is having on the environment.

While climate change is widely accepted as a global issue, there is a clear disparity in the way different industries address it. When it comes to cloud computing, data centres, and the wider IT service industry, the environmental impact these are having is complex - and, until recently, relatively unknown.

With companies transitioning to the cloud long before the COVID-19pandemic hit, the EU set a plan of achieving climate-neutral, highly energy-efficient and sustainable data centres by no later than 2030.

As a first step, it launched a study on ‘Energy-efficient Cloud Computing Technologies and Policies for an Eco-friendly Cloud Market’. The research showed, however, that, due to the nature of cloud computing and the diversity of cloud service providers, there is no clear solution to reach said goal.

Making the cloud greener

According to Accenture’s report on green cloud computing, ‘Migrations to the public cloud can reduce CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year - which equates to taking 22 million cars off the road.’ But public cloud isn’t right for everyone or every company, with hybrid, a combination of private and public cloud solutions, becoming an increasingly popular option across all sectors. So how can you make a private cloud greener?

Accenture’s report gave three tips:

  1. Partner with a carbon-thoughtful provider, with solid plans in place to ensure carbon neutrality in their data centres. For example, 90% of Equinix’s global data center energy consumption in 2019 used 100% clean and renewable energy.
  2. Focus on becoming a Cloud Native company - optimising applications for the cloud can cut carbon emissions by 98%.
  3. Innovate further - use your transition to the cloud to build and design solutions to help combat climate change.

Of course, we can’t highlight how green the cloud can be without also acknowledging the real and present damage caused by computer and electrical waste, as well as plastics used, in the majority of computer equipment. These products contain dangerous chemicals that pollute the air, water, and soil - but moving away from legacy hardware platforms and moving to the cloud is imperative in reducing that waste.

Albert Sabban’s book ‘Green Computing Technologies and Industry in 2021’ suggests green computing and electrical technologies have been rapidly gaining traction over the past twenty years as people and companies realise the impact their equipment is having on the environment. There is a real drive for companies to ensure they take responsibility for their supply chains and manufacturing processes, focusing on, for example, using green materials, renewable energy, and recycling old or unused equipment.

Supporting climate change solutions

While the cloud itself is greener than legacy systems, it’s important to also highlight how the cloud is powering the development of technologies, products and services that are helping tackle climate change.

Agritech company Satelligence uses satellite data and AI to monitor supply chains in real-time to identify risks like forest fires, deforestation and carbon stock loss. Delivered to clients through a cloud-based virtualisation platform, companies can identify and solve risks quickly, but also ensure bad actors in their supply chain can be educated to stop the cycle of deforestation rather than simply pass the buck.

Another example, Cloud-based reporting tool Footprint Manager enables an organisation to measure, manage and reduce its carbon, energy, water and waste footprint. And cloud-based energy management dashboard UtilitySMART allows companies to manage, monitor, and analyse energy use from many systems, loads and locations online, in one place.

These are just a few companies whose technologies rely on the cloud to help solve climate change - and the number of such companies is only increasing. Creating transparency across all forms of business is the most efficient way to identify and tackle carbon-heavy practices, and the cloud offers the scale to do so quickly and reliably. But anything that relies on energy to run must consider its carbon footprint.

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How changing digital habits comes into play

According to McKinsey & Company, we’ve seen digital transformation accelerate seven years ahead of schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also showed a seven year acceleration, on average, of companies creating digital or digitally-enhanced offerings.

Rather than this change being driven by B2B or B2C companies, it is instead being determined by those with or without physical products. The report states that ‘the reported increases are much more significant in healthcare and pharma, financial services, and professional services, where executives report a jump nearly twice as large as those reported in CPG companies.’

To further bolster this acceleration, a more recent study from IBM suggested the pandemic ‘accelerated digital transformation by 59%’. 60% of respondents also said COVID-19 ‘adjusted our approach to change management’ and ‘accelerated process automation,’ with 64% acknowledging a shift to more cloud-based business activities.

McKinsey & Company followed up their digital transformation report with a survey on digital consumer habits, which found a 20% growth in ‘fully digital’ users in the six months ending in April 2021. Unsurprisingly, the survey showed a slight decrease in online activities once the world came out of lockdown for sectors like apparel, general retail, and grocery, where physical experiences are still valued by consumers. But this slight decrease is minimal in comparison to the general global increased digital footprint - across developed and developing countries.

Whether at home, in the office, working, or not, our lives are almost fully digital now, with a growing number of the technologies and applications we use every day being cloud-based. But, as mentioned above, every aspect of modern computing has a carbon price tag attached to it. With more people using more devices every day, there is a cost to the environment - and it’s one a lot of computing companies don’t pay attention to. Experimentation to advance the human race at the cost of, well, the Earth.

Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are trying to solve the impact modern computing is having on climate change - by realising its true effect on the environment and how to create and implement more sustainable practices. Earlier this year, they delivered their findings in a paper called ‘Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing.’

The study found that ‘carbon emissions have two sources: operational energy consumption, and hardware manufacturing and infrastructure.’ While algorithmic, software, and hardware innovations that boost performance and power efficiency help reduce the carbon footprint of operational energy consumption, the overall carbon footprint of computer systems continues to grow.

The paper specifically highlights data centres as contributing to carbon emissions - they account for 1% of global energy consumption, which is unsurprising when you think about how much energy is required to house and cool their servers. This helps demonstrate the importance for companies using the cloud to ensure they work with providers and hosting companies that are carbon-thoughtful.

The paper also looked at how reducing the complexity of devices could reduce manufacturing emissions. For example, look at modern chip design which houses silicon and billions of transistors. With only one small portion of the chip being used at any one time, there’s a lot of unused silicon - or dark silicon, as it’s called - that increases performance. But at what cost to the environment?

What’s next?

Time is running out. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - the world’s leading authority on climate science - recently announced that ‘human activity was ‘unequivocally’ the cause of rapid changes to the climate.’ Confirming temperatures are on course to rise by at least 1.5 degrees over the next two decades, the IPCC said ‘only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases in this decade can prevent such climate breakdown’.

Every action or inaction has an impact on the environment and companies cannot play the ignorance card anymore. With more people moving online, companies delivering computational products and services must ensure they are doing so in the most sustainable way possible. This is especially important for those working in modern computing - what is the environmental impact your innovations are having? Do they cause more damage even when they are meant to solve the climate change crisis?

The cloud is enabling various products and services to help tackle the climate crisis around the globe but not all clouds are the same. You must consider the impact your provider is having - are they using renewable energy? Are they offsetting their carbon? Are they ensuring the most sustainable practices are in place? We need to all work together to reduce our carbon footprint now - and, when it comes to the cloud and the world’s accelerated digital transformation, that means looking at your own carbon footprint as well as your suppliers’.

About the author

Jake Madders, along with his business partner Jon Lucas, founded Hyve Managed Hosting, in 2001. Since then, in his role as Director, Jake has facilitated the growth of Hyve from a small start-up to a hugely successful managed cloud hosting company with a global customer base.

Jake can often be found discussing a range of cloud and tech topics such as password security, preparing for cyber attacks, and the importance of diversification of tech.