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Low carbon mode

Cloud of Doubt: Is Moving to The Cloud Really the Most Sustainable Thing You Can Do as an IT Director?

With its seemingly limitless capacity for storage, security, and scalability, the cloud has taken the business world by storm. But it comes at a profound environmental cost.

Anthony Levy, an advocate for sustainable IT, urges business leaders to think twice before outsourcing their carbon footprint.

the cloud is every service you can access remotely via the internet, at any time, on any device, almost anywhere in the world.

What is the cloud? 

There are no silly questions when it comes to technology. You’d be surprised how many CEOs gesture vaguely skywards when speaking about the cloud. But it's not that remarkable when you consider that data centres are designed to streamline our digital existence to the point that we don’t need to know the ins and outs of how they operate.

Many of us are happily unaware – in our busy, full tilt world, easing our mental load is as valuable as freeing up physical space. So, simply put, the cloud is every service you can access remotely via the internet, at any time, on any device, almost anywhere in the world. It’s a global network of remote servers that perform on-demand functions and keep our data alive – even when we no longer need it. 

Sounds perfect, what’s the problem? 

It’s tempting to imagine the cloud as some sort of intangible cyberspace, but those busy servers are working overdrive in their millions and housed in massive energy-intensive data centres around the world. These concrete and steel giants guzzle millions of tonnes of water and burn through billions of kilowatt hours of electricity to keep them running 24/7. 

Data centres account for around 2% of all global CO2 emissions – an estimate comparable with the aviation industry – and that (likely conservative) figure is rising fast. Despite bold claims to sustainability by the ‘Big Three’ cloud providers (AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud), their focus on newer technologies, leaner infrastructure, and cleaner power doesn’t go far enough. 

Current data on greenhouse gas emissions fails to account for the full lifecycle of IT, an industry supply chain we know is a carbon monster. 80% of a cloud provider’s emissions come from Scope 3, which is a notoriously difficult impact to address. Businesses are unlikely to get accurate data from their cloud providers in time for mandatory reporting.

 

Aren’t data centres getting greener though? 

Data centre innovation is underway, but not in sync with the growing eWaste and CO2 crisis. The newest designs depend on the same metals and minerals the IT industry as a whole is over-exploiting. When you consider that a single new network switch has quarter of a tonne of embodied carbon before it is even turned on, you see the scale of the problem goes beyond building cutting edge technology solutions. 

Cloud providers are starting to use renewable energy, and there are some interesting projects underway. The problem is that they are still creating unnecessary waste by consuming renewable energy that could be deployed elsewhere. A genuinely sustainable approach would be to minimise waste by proactively reducing demand for cloud services. Of course, no cloud provider is ever incentivised to encourage customers to use less, which is exactly what would reduce the impact of data centres on the environment. 

 

Surely moving to the cloud will reduce our business’s on-premises carbon footprint?

Outsourcing the burden of buying, maintaining, powering, and cooling networking hardware sounds appealing. But from a sustainability angle it may not be the clear choice. By essentially taking something and moving it somewhere else, its impact doesn't disappear. In fact, removing IT from your visibility may make you less likely to moderate your use of it, risking higher emissions, and certainly a headache collecting accurate data when the time comes to report your Scope 3. 

Like its namesake, the cloud is a thing of wonder, and it performs extraordinarily. So, let’s be clear – I’m not saying migrating to the cloud is the wrong choice for every business. And it needn’t be a binary outcome. But it’s important to be thoughtful about whether the cloud should be the default move, or whether there’s another way of being more sustainable.  

 

How do I make the right choice for my business? 

If you have unpredictable demands on your services and can't anticipate how much or when data is going to be used, then the cloud is a good option. Choose the most sustainable provider you can find, based on action over vague promises. Challenge them to provide useful information, such as how they will help minimise the storage you need in their data centre, rather than simply selling you more and more. 

If your business has more predictable needs, and you can anticipate how much they will grow overtime, then you may be better placed harnessing your own capabilities, extending your assets for longer, and buying authorised remanufactured IT over new. With on-premises control, you can manage this more cost effectively and you can keep your emissions down.  

Another option is to mix on-premises with cloud servers, but remember, with the cloud you are moving – not removing – your emissions. Those emissions will be partly determined by the cloud provider, but you will be accountable for reporting them. The provider will make decisions around upgrading equipment (and the associated energy that process entails), and when and how it is disposed of.  

If you’ve already moved to the cloud, the best way you can reduce your footprint is by reducing the amount of data you have taking up space on remote servers. And control your own variables by making considered choices about the devices that connect you to the cloud. You can make a significant impact on your carbon footprint by procuring authorised remanufactured IT instead of new for your on-premises networking. 

 

Isn’t there a tension between actively gathering data and reducing our digital footprint? 

Data plays an important part in triggering change as governments push for reporting and disclosure on greenhouse gas emissions, but yes, it’s also ironically part of the problem. Data itself is causing the demand for cloud and data centre services, and more than half of all data, once stored, is never retrieved (again, a conservative estimate).  

Most of us relate to this on a personal level. I used to take loads of videos of my kids when they were small – beautiful, artistic, slow-motion shots of them on a swing, hair blowing, looking very sweet. These memories take up huge amounts of data in my phone and are likely duplicated in a data centre that is running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in case I want to retrieve that memory. And, in all honesty I probably won’t. Now multiply that by 8 billion people on the planet, all potentially storing this kind of data. 

Someone has to say it – if we’re going to leave a habitable planet behind us, we need to lose this digital hoarding that’s driven by sentimentality or laziness. Looking at our businesses’ use of data through a critical lens is even more sobering when considering our digital impact on a corporate scale. The cloud is fundamental to who we are as a species in the 21st century and data centres are here to stay. The least we can do is be mindful about how we use them. 

 

The silver lining 

Every choice we make around IT has a carbon cost. If this has made you rethink the way your business uses technology and you’re ready to #ActOnIT – get in touch. 

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