The environmental impact of cloud technology
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The environmental impact of cloud technology

Published 23/03/2020

The environmental impact of cloud technology

Cloud technology makes life faster, simpler and, by all appearances, cleaner. What it does is moving the physical computer processing, the spinning hard drives and data storage just somewhere else. There is growing public awareness of the massive scale of the infrastructure needed to support this technology and of the potentially huge environmental cost that it may have.

Cloud computing covers the entire spectrum of the SaaS industry, as well as web streaming, among a variety of other applications. Online video providers like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ already accounts for over 60% of all downstream traffic. Estimates suggest that some 8 million data centres now use over 2% of the global energy supply; and they account for some 0.3% of overall carbon emissions today. Given this, the sector has the potential for a very significant carbon footprint.

As Greenpeace energy campaigner Gary Cook told Big Think, "Digital videos come in very large file sizes and [are] getting bigger with each new generation of higher definition video." With the major video streamers all offering 4K as well as gaming sites like Google Stadia, demand will only increase.

The cost of streaming your favourite TV show

Some sources have suggested that watching 30 minutes of Netflix might actually put 1.6kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; or that streaming 30 hours of a TV series is the equivalent of driving about 90 miles. According to BBC Radio 4 show ''More or Less'', however, the actual number is more like 20g of CO2 released per half hour watched, or the equivalent of driving 160 metres.

Jonathan Coomey, a leading expert on the impact of IT on the environment, told the show, “Generally it's better to move bits than it is to move atoms. I'd rather people stream video over the internet rather than drive to the cinema ... Oftentimes, using digital services is vastly more efficient. And also what you see is that the big computing providers are rapidly moving towards renewable electricity.”

Things aren't necessarily as negative as they might seem. Cloud data centres are generally significantly more efficient than their traditional equivalents, both in terms of computer hardware and cooling technology, so they make proportionately better use of energy. Furthermore, their owners are investing big in renewable energy – and this provides benefits for all of us.

''What happens over time as you buy more of a particular technology and you deploy it is that the costs come down,'' Coomey explained. ''Typically, the cost for wind generation comes down by [10% or] 15% or so for every doubling of cumulative experience. For solar it's 20% or 25%. What that means is that as these big companies deploy more wind and solar, the costs come down for everyone.''

Commitment to 100% cloud renewable energy

And the major operators are keen to get ahead. AWS has previously stated a commitment to reaching 100% renewable energy and passed 50% for usage in 2018; Microsoft has pledged to reduce its operational carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 and reports that its data centres are already carbon neutral; and Google has a commitment to carbon neutrality and matches 100% of the energy consumed by global operations with renewable energy.

There are also creative solutions for the energy requirements and outputs of data centres. While they are typically in remote locations, where land is cheap and plentiful, placing them in colder climates can also reduce the energy needed for cooling, using the ambient temperature. Nordic provider DigiPlex is reportedly redirecting waste energy from its Oslo data centre in order to heat some 5,000 flats in the city.

Cloud also offers a number of secondary benefits. Remote working, enabled by cloud technology, saves staff from commuting to heated and brightly-lit office spaces; digital distribution cuts out the physical manufacture and movement of goods; and customer-supplier networks powered by the cloud (the new Uber for cloud services) can boost efficiency and cut waste.

Cloud providers are at a crossroads – continue to provide cloud servers which are powered by non-renewable resources or make the changes now to a more environmentally friendly solution.  Cloud infrastructure can be powered by renewable energy, in a way that would have been previously impossible – unlocking new opportunities and efficiencies in the same way that digital technology does.

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