Is the cloud killing the environment?

In short, yes. Here’s why and what you can do to help.

While it might seem like the cloud is a vague, weightless place propping up the wireless world, there is (of course) physical cloud infrastructure that needs 24/7 power.


Single-use plastic. Car pollution. Fast fashion. Most of us have some idea what’s wrecking the environment. But there’s another glaring – and rapidly growing – hazard cooking the planet: data centres. Those constantly processing computers that make our life on the cloud so ubiquitous also have a bigger carbon footprint than the aviation industry, while the ones that support Bitcoin are on track to boost global warming above 2°C in just two decades. 

Everything we do on the seemingly invisible” internet; every click, search or stream; each piece” of data – even taking a photo on our phone – is matched by a piece of energy. So while it might seem like the cloud is a vague, weightless place propping up the wireless world and existing away from the reality” of a hard drive, there is (of course) physical cloud infrastructure, somewhere. Whether it’s for sending messages, uploading files or playing games, using anything to do with the cloud still means computer servers, mostly housed in massive data centres (think 40 times the size of a tennis court) are set to work. Centres that need 247 electricity to power the servers, storage and back-up equipment – as well as keep everything cool.

The problem? When that electricity is produced by fossil fuel sources (coal, oil, natural gas). A recent study by French think tank The Shift Project found data centres that store and supply internet content, along with the kit needed to access it, from phones to Wi-Fi routers will produce 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions by next year. Another study by McMaster University in Canada found greenhouse gas emissions from the Information and Communications (ICT) Industry, which includes phones, computers and data centres, could rise to over 14% by 2040

This all means that as the amount of data we create continues to expand at soaring rates (61% by 2025), and more devices become connected (50 billion by next year), the number of data centres – and the power needed to support them – is only going to increase. They’ve already boomed from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today, with the amount of energy doubling every four years. In short: energy use in computing and digital tech is growing much faster than previously predicted and, ironically, the same tech we use to understand our world is also changing it in precarious ways.

Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century, and are one of the largest and fastest-growing in terms of electricity demand,” says Gary Cook, senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace, which has documented the environmental impact of data centres. The cloud’s branding makes it sound clean and low-impact. But where the cloud actually touches” the ground, it’s often driving significant new demand from dirty sources of electricity and taking us in the wrong direction from solving climate change.” 

  • Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.”  Data centres are the digital factories of the 21st century.” 

The impact of our everyday browsing might seem small on an individual level, but with technology leaders having billions of users worldwide, numbers obviously scale up fast. Today, in one (average) internet minute, 188 million emails will be sent, Google will process 3.8 million search queries and Tinder gets 1.4 million swipes. Collectively, that’s a lot of data. Video streaming is also still massively increasing and makes up over 60% of the total downstream volume of traffic from servers to individual devices, with Netflix alone generating 15% according to one report. Streaming requires electricity – for our phones, for data centres – but few people consider that there’s also an emissions cost for this,” says cloud expert and community energy company director, Paul Johnston. Imagine the energy it takes to store and provide 200 million views of one video?” That’s a key point: when the Despacito music video reached a record-breaking five billion views on YouTube in April 2018, it also burned the same amount of energy as 40,000 US homes in a year. Essentially, these emissions come from the (non-green) electricity and cooling, but we are so abstracted from the usage of data centres that most people wouldn’t consider that they matter – but they do,” says Johnston.

Professor Stephen Murphy of the School of Computing and Digital Technology at Birmingham City University agrees that, generally, most people don’t think about the cloud or what it’s really used for. Remember that meme that says there’s no such thing as the cloud, it’s just somebody else’s computer’? People forget that every time they tap an app, their phone isn’t doing a lot – it’s showing them something – but there’s still a server somewhere pulling stuff out of a database, crunching that data which tells them their train is running late or a parcel will be delivered at 6pm – and then sending it back to their phone with 4G connection. All that back end processing’ is done in the cloud, and has an energy footprint.” But he also adds that, at the moment, there’s no way for us to measure this. We don’t get a message saying: Today your WhatsApp usage released 10g of carbon!’ And maybe some people don’t consider it their job to think about it?” 

Enter those tech heavyweights who have been targeted to step up their sustainability – with some already showing signs of an environmental conscious. Back in 2010, Greenpeace launched their Unfriend Coal” campaign, which led to Facebook becoming the first company committed to being 100% renewably powered. Since then, Cook says they’ve definitely seen a significant change” in how major internet and data centre companies approach their climate change responsibility. We’re seeing a growing number of commitments to 100% renewable energy by leading IT brands,” he says.

  • The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.”  The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption.” 

Apple’s data centres are now powered entirely by renewable energy. Google is also operating with 100% renewable energy. The company also buys or generate more carbon-free energy than it uses in its data centres to make up for when it needs to turn to the grid for more power. Microsoft also has a target of 70% renewable energy by 2023. Google and Microsoft are very good in this area,” confirms Johnston, adding others in the space need to catch up – including Amazon Web Services (AWS), the largest cloud service provider for thousands of companies including Uber, Slack and Pinterest. The energy required to power all of its data centres in Virginia – aka Data Centre Alley”, where 70% of the world’s traffic passes through – for a year at full capacity, is also equivalent to the electricity used to power 1.4 million homes, annually. But earlier this year, a Greenpeace report found only 12% of AWS data centres in Virginia were powered by renewable energy. AWS remains one of the biggest laggards in terms of tackling climate change and transitioning to renewable sources of energy,” says Cook. We found their current claims of being 50% renewably powered is backed up largely with paper-based claims to renewable energy, rather than an added new supply of renewables connected to, and matching, their expansion.”

AWS isn’t the only slacker. Alibaba (China’s leading cloud provider) have done almost nothing in this space and have very little in the way of green credentials,” says Johnston, who also co-authored a white paper last year on data centre energy use. This isn’t surprising given that there doesn’t seem to be the same social movement in China in this area, and the electricity grid is still heavily weighted towards coal, meaning it produces more emissions than other countries.” One recent report by Greenpeace and North China Electric Power University found China’s data centres emitted 99 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 – that’s equal to 21 million cars on the road.

The fact that data is sent all over the world through an invisible processes makes accountability for many companies pretty impossible, but just before the global Climate Strikes in September this year, many tech companies released statements showing their green credentials. Amazon pledged to be net zero carbon across their entire businesses by 2040 – a decade ahead of the Paris Accord’s goal of 2050. Google announced 18 new renewable energy deals – the largest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history. These are positive moves but Johnston also warns of greenwashing” – a form of spin where green PR is deceptively used to promote the perception of an organisation being environmentally friendly. For example, two weeks after the Climate Pledge, Amazon was found to be sponsoring an Oil Extraction Tech conference,” he says. Microsoft is funding Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign in the US and some people argue that he has been a hindrance to tackling the causes of climate change.”

There are other areas beyond everyday computing services that have a data centre energy problem. I think most people don’t even think about the climate cost of Bitcoin – where many companies around the world are putting huge numbers of computers in data centres to work to guess numbers simply to get Bitcoin,” says Johnston. [Reminder: Bitcoin is the process of generating new units of the digital currency by solving complex mathematical puzzles, or mining”. Puzzle-solvers or miners” compete – or race – for the chance to solve puzzles (blocks), and the first one who does is rewarded with limited coins.] Anyone with a computer server fast enough can join the network but solving these blocks requires specialised hardware and vast amounts of electricity, which according to new research now translates into a significant carbon footprint.

With annual carbon emissions in a range from 22.0 to 22.9 MtCO2, Bitcoin has a footprint comparable to a city the size of Kansas City (or a small country like Sri Lanka),” says Christian Stoll, an energy researcher at the Technical University of Munich which recently published a study on Bitcoin’s carbon footprint. Last year, researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa also found that Bitcoin could be responsible for enough greenhouse gas emissions to thrust climate change past 2°C within the next two decades. The emissions from transportation, housing and food are considered the main contributors to climate change,” said Katie Taladay, who co-authored the paper. This research illustrates that Bitcoin should be added to this list.” 

THE CARBON COST OF…

1 text message = 0.014g

1 email = 4 g CO2e

1 Tweet = 0.02g CO2e

1 Google search = 0.2g to 7g CO2e

1 webpage visit with pictures or video = 0.2g of CO2e per second

10 minutes of YouTube = 1g of CO2e

30 minutes of Netflix = 1.6kg of CO2e

1 year of Facebook use = 299g of CO2e

1 year of 1 hour phone use each day = 1250kg of CO2e

1 year of 8 hours of laptop use each day = 4488kg CO2e

Of course, lots of cryptocurrencies have a footprint – Bitcoin is the tip of the iceberg – but if increasingly utilised as a currency, emissions are bound to skyrocket. And while there are clean energy mining solutions in renewable energy-rich countries such as Iceland, Norway and Sweden, China is seen as the cryptocurrency capital with more mining operations than any other country and although its clean energy industry is still developing, 73% of China’s data centres get their power from coal. China is one of the biggest markets of Bitcoin mining because it’s relatively easy to buy an old warehouse, stuff it full of computers and servers – and electricity is cheap,” says Murphy. But because the majority of their electrical generation capacity is coal-powered, that has more of a negative impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.”

In southern China, some miners take advantage of cheap and abundant hydroelectric power, and earlier this year it was reported that the Chinese government were cracking down on the practice. Although some plans have apparently recently been scrapped. Still, its because of Bitcoin’s overall increasing energy burden on the climate that tech researchers such as Stoll think its worth discussing regulating cryptocurrency mining in regions where power generation is especially carbon-intensive, and linking these large-scale mining operations to renewable energy production.

And there lies a pervasive solution to the environmental damage of data centres in general. The internet stands for 10% of the global electricity consumption, but its consumption is not a climate issue if the electricity originates from clean sources like wind or solar,” says Stoll. Johnston agrees: Data centres are a part of the climate change problem, but they are a solvable part if switched to renewable energy; we simply have to power them correctly.” But he’s keen to point out that fossil fuels are a huge driver of growth in society, and many companies are reliant on them so actually getting rid of them is an incredibly complex problem”. That said, tech is such a wealthy industry that we should be asking it to pay for the upgrades needed to sustainably power data centres,” he says. I don’t think many ordinary’ people will be happy if they have to start figuring out whether their services are provided using a dirty’ or clean’ data centre – and then have’ to do something about it’.” Still, there are ways to help. Vote in elections for governments that are going to put rules and regulations on data centre energy usage, and ask online services you use a lot if they’re run on sustainable servers – this should drive them to ask their providers and generate pressure.” Plus, we know being green can improve public opinion of a company. 

And public interest, or awareness, is growing. Stoll says news articles that covered his study received more than three billion visits. People obviously care about how much carbon certain activities cause. But the general problem is not single sources of emissions (such as Bitcoin, the fashion industry, or the internet). It’s that market prices do not reflect the climate damage of carbon emissions.” So, when each emitted tonne of carbon dioxide causes warming, but the emitter isn’t charged for that. Policy makers should correct this market failure through effective carbon pricing, and combine that with bans of certain products and activities, and more research and development support to foster innovation,” he says, adding that data volume will continue to grow, but it is not clear if more energy-efficient hardware and data centres can offset the trend. It why he says the decarbonisation of the power sector is a central piece to solve the climate puzzle, adding the cost of clean electricity continues to decline – in some places, it’s already cheaper than fossil alternatives.”

  • The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.”  The cost of clean electricity continues to decline.” 

As for that innovation, Murphy says there are a few (not necessarily easy) solutions on top of relocating data centres to cold climates so less air conditioning is needed, or near renewable energy sources: design and make servers that are resilient to run at high temperatures, so you don’t need to power the energy-guzzling air-conditioning units in data centres, or build hardware that doesn’t generate that amount of heat in the first place. Early servers were all about making everything faster, which generated a lot of heat and why you had these ridiculous cooling systems, like those water cooling kits serious gamers use,” he says. More manufacturers are realising it isn’t just about performance now, it’s also about energy efficiency – and you can’t just keep making things with fans.” 

While there is this increasing doomed approach to the cloud”, Murphy says it has enabled companies to only use the amount of servers they need, and average spare capacity over multiple companies using the same cloud provider. As opposed to back in the day when it was expensive for a company to build and run their own their data centres, the majority of which would also be very underutilized, meaning a small return on investment, as well as a wasted energy issue. But with 5G bringing the next explosion of data to our phones, the on-going surge of IoT devices constantly emitting and receiving data (TVs, lighting systems) and a resounding cryptocurrency scene relying on cloud computing, the problem with fossil fuelled data centres is going to intensify. Greenhouse gas emissions of the ICT industry might have previously flown under the radar, shielded by its efficacy at helping to reduce other industry sectors’ footprint, such as cutting transport emissions via online shopping. But considering the energy used by data centres is set to triple in the next 10 years, and each connected person will have at least one internet interaction every 18 seconds by 2025, the race – and competitive pressure – for carbon-free operations within this space is on.

Despite a number of companies making progress to power their infrastructure with renewable sources of energy, Cook says that for most of the sector, the rapid expansion is still driving new demand for dirty energy. But the message for IT leaders to clean up is loud and clear. Given the expansion of the digital universe expected over the next 10 years, the decisions of internet, cloud, and data centre giants on the source of energy that powers them will play a huge factor in whether the planet transitions away from fossil fuels by 2030 – as demanded by climate science.” 

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR DAILY DATA HYGIENE

Cook says anyone interested in reducing their internet carbon footprint should approach it from two directions. Push the internet platforms and applications you use to power their data centres with renewable energy, and if they fail to take action, switch to those who are. Secondly, make the energy consumption from your digital lives smaller.” How? Read on: 

SLASH YOUR STREAMING: Streaming video via cellular connection uses 2 to 3 more times energy than the delivery of the same show or song when connected via WiFi or ethernet. Cook says if you’re just streaming music, avoid streaming songs from video platforms like YouTube that will also stream video, meaning more data and more energy. Also, consider downloading the whole album once, rather than streaming it over and over. 

UNSUBSCRIBE FROM EMAIL LISTS: Emails contribute 986,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every day. Johnston says it’s actually not the emails that matter, but the additional consumption they create, adding that as well as unsubscribing from unwanted subscription emails, deleting any digital stuff (files, photos etc) you don’t want – not backing it up to the cloud and leaving it there forever (another waste of energy) can also help.

POWER DOWN ON GAMING: One study found that U.S. gamers emit more carbon dioxide than Lebanon or Estonia. While your own energy bill could go down, Cook says the equivalent of one to three fridges of energy demand would be running in the background to deliver your online game. Instead, power down when not playing, buy ENERGY STAR-rated equipment where possible and tweak your display settings. 

PROTECT YOUR PRIVACY: Tightening your privacy settings can not only protect your online identify and help curb the data being generated with every search and click, it also starts to stem the flow of a critical source of revenue that is fuelling more investment in energy intensive data centres and other parts of the online world. 

BREAK-UP WITH ALEXA: Smart speakers like Alexa may be the future of home automation, but Cook says due to the lack of a meaningful commitment by Amazon to renewable energy, most of the energy that powers her comes from a much earlier stardate: dirty coal and fracked gas. Can’t say goodbye? Be sure to ask her – a lot – why she isn’t powered with clean energy. Somewhere in Seattle, someone at Amazon should get the message.

DEMANDCLEANER CLOUD: Consumer pressure on global IT brands has been critical to driving meaningful change, but they need to be reminded that customers expect them to show they are responding to the climate emergency. Find out where your websites, apps, and other online platforms are hosted (ask for a breakdown of how their data centres are run and what type of energy they are using). Cook says if your favourite messaging app, video streaming site, news outlet, or even your employer is hosted on AWS or other non-green providers, encourage them to push those providers to adopt more renewables, or find a greener hosting provider. See Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean report (update coming soon).

JOINCAUSE: Johnston argues all of this effort is dwarfed by not getting involved in a bigger movement. In other words, if your carbon footprint really matters to you, find and join a cause or campaign that’s spreading the climate change message and making a difference. He says the impact will be larger.


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