Climate change is one of the most critical problems humanity faces today, with carbon dioxide emissions being the most significant factor contributing to rising global temperatures. The 2021 COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference 2021) in the UK will urge all economies to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, as per the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
While we regard a move to the cloud as a step in the right direction for businesses and the environment, it's not completely clean. The Shift Project, a French think tank, estimated that the data centers powering cloud computing and cloud-native applications would produce 4% of global greenhouse gases in 2020— a pre-pandemic forecast.
The toll exacted by traditional data centers on the environment
A single Google search generates up to seven grams of carbon dioxide emissions— sufficient to power up a lightbulb for a few seconds. Using a smartphone for an hour a day throughout the year results in 1250 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. Considering the billions of people who run hundreds of Google searches and stream countless videos on their smartphones daily, and the internet’s carbon footprint becomes alarming.
A commonly used analogy to explain the impact is the case of the music video Despacito. It reached five billion views on YouTube in 2018— equivalent to the amount of energy consumed by 40,000 US homes in a year.
As the consumption of data soars and cloud computing becomes the norm, the reliance on the ICT industry will continue to rise. Without optimizing efficiency for cloud-native applications, the sector could consume 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. At this rate, the ICT industry’s electricity consumption would cross that of countries globally (except the US, China, and India), according to a peer-reviewed Swedish study forecasting total worldwide power consumption.
How the cloud has helped enterprises reduce their carbon footprint
Switching to the cloud is equivalent to carpooling or public transportation instead of owning personal vehicles (i.e., on-premise servers). On-premises servers require tons of hardware, massive facilities equipped with round-the-clock power supply and cooling to keep a business operational.
By "carpooling" with cloud service providers (Amazon, Microsoft, Google), businesses not only save resources but also operate more efficiently. A move to cloud computing comes with cost and environmental benefits as cloud-native applications consume less infrastructure, physical space, and energy per user.
Moreover, as more organizations adopt cloud computing, they're better equipped to support remote work, which is here to stay. The move also reduces the need for large office spaces, which significantly reduces each enterprise's carbon dioxide emissions.
The cloud can enable a greater degree of efficiency in the use of power, heating, and resources. However, IT enterprises must reimagine traditional data centers for zero waste and greater efficiency for that to happen. Large cloud service providers are best equipped to lead the change in building a carbon-neutral cloud with their abundant resources (financial, technology, and human capital).
How big tech is leading the fight against climate change
The primary reason traditional data centers aren't environmentally sustainable is their reliance on dirty energy. Merely switching to renewable or low-carbon energy sources will solve a sizeable portion of the problem. Redesigning data centers to ramp up their energy efficiency and building green facilities (OLED lighting, green cooling, renewable power) can go a long way in achieving a near-zero carbon footprint.
IT, especially the tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and IBM, have taken note and started reimagining their infrastructure to incorporate sustainable technologies and lead the fight against climate change. According to The Guardian, these companies are the biggest buyers of renewable energy to sustain their data centers.
For instance, Google claims to be the first organization of its size and scale to be operating with 100% renewable energy. Powered by wind farms and solar panels, Google's data centers are seven times more energy efficient today. Google is also tapping into AI and machine learning to optimize its data centers. If there's a temperature change, the amount of energy used to cool the servers gets adjusted accordingly.
Microsoft has set a target of becoming carbon negative by 2030. By 2050, the corporation aims to remove more carbon from the environment than it emitted since its establishment in 1975. Besides using renewable energy sources, it's also investing in carbon reduction and removal technologies to become carbon negative. Microsoft is also experimenting with an underwater data center facility off the coast of Scotland to keep its data centers cool without draining massive amounts of electricity.
AWS has pledged to reach net-zero carbon across all its businesses by 2040. Its data centers in Virginia, dubbed as the "Data Center Alley," account for 70% of the world's internet traffic. According to Greenpeace, these data centers eat up energy equivalent to the amount of electricity powering up 1.4 million US homes in a year. The pledge is a critical step toward building a greener, more sustainable cloud.
Global technology enterprises like HCL share the responsibility of supporting their customer journeys to a greener cloud by choosing the right ecosystems, providing the right skills, leveraging sustainable technologies, and driving cloud transformation initiatives in traditional organizations. For instance, HCL has helped 70% of its customers in the EU and the UK to move to a cloud or a data center powered by renewable energy sources.
Reducing carbon footprint with green data centers: The next moonshot for cloud service providers
The EU expects European data centers to be carbon neutral by 2030. With the right investments in innovation and technology, IT has the power to enable sustainable business operations. A greener cloud is also good news for cloud service providers as it reduces costs, improves efficiency, builds a better reputation for their brands, and future-proofs operations.
That's why championing more efforts to make data centers greener should be a mandate for all tech corporations. Investing in cloud service providers that prioritize sustainability is the first step toward building environmentally sustainable operations. Additionally, all organizations dedicated to running carbon-neutral operations should move to the cloud and run cloud transformation initiatives to get started right away.
The way forward is to adopt renewable energy sources, source energy-efficient hardware and software for data centers, incorporate energy-efficient lighting and power supply within facilities, and design intelligent cooling systems to reduce wastage. IT leaders worldwide should take up the responsibility of making greener choices when dealing with suppliers— they should push their suppliers to offer assurance of more sustainable technologies reducing carbon emissions through relevant KPIs.