The environmental footprint of the online world is constantly expanding as its energy consumption rises to meet demand, but there are benefits too, which must be set against the costs. Greenpeace estimates that by 2025, the technology sector could consume 20% of the world’s total electricity; this increase from 7% currently is attributed to the expansion of cloud computing and the further development of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which require a great deal of computing power. Despite these claims, many recent reports by companies such as Microsoft have stated that the growth of cloud computing has had a minimal impact on energy consumption and further improvements in efficiency will negate the impact of ever-expanding storage and processing. What is the truth of the environmental impact of cloud computing?

What is Cloud Computing?

Cloud computing, despite existing since the early 1960s, was developed as a marketing term in the late 1990s. The idea is that data can be collected, analysed and stored in specialised, shared data centres all over the world before being accessed through a multitude of web-enabled services. The data can be processed online, and is fast becoming the go-to solution for commercial and government systems, with cloud applications ranging from personal productivity tools like Office365 to large database solutions powered by Microsoft Azure.

In 2018 it was estimated that 3.6 billion people were accessing a huge range of cloud computing services including Google Drive, Office365, Oracle, Netflix and Dropbox. The largest providers of cloud computing are Amazon Web services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform.

Electricity Demands

The main impact of cloud computing is the vast amounts of electricity required to power the servers and keep them cool. In 2012, the IT sector consumed more electricity than the entirety of Russia and just under half the total consumption of the US. Demand for cloud computing will only continue to grow; an IDC Study claims that by 2025, worldwide annual data traffic will increase by 60% to 175 Zettabytes (175 trillion Gigabytes), with cloud computing applications driving the majority of this growth.

However, to fully understand the overall impact of cloud computing we must compare it to the alternative- local computing.

Positives of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is more efficient and resilient than local computing capacity for individuals and firms, and also offers geographic redundancy, making data loss unlikely even in the event of a natural disaster. A 2013 research paper, funded by Google, revealed that by moving commonly used software applications to the cloud, energy usage would decrease by 87%. Furthermore, cloud computing is a major enabler of both home and remote working, reducing the need for commuting and therefore decreasing emissions. 

Large-scale data centres are also more likely to cost-effectively recover and reuse heat. Google reported that whilst the amount of computer processing at its data centres increased by 550% between 2010 and 2018, the amount of energy consumed grew by just 6%. If demand growth and efficiency savings are broadly in balance then it may be possible to deliver the projected growth in data centre capacity without significantly increasing energy requirements.

Negatives of Cloud Computing

Computer equipment generates a lot of heat and so data centres must be kept cool. Cooling typically accounts for 40% of total energy consumption and up to 80% if the natural climate of the data centre is warmer. The ACDC (Arctic Circle Data Centre) has adopted a novel approach; located in the closest Norwegian town to the Arctic Circle and powered by hydroelectricity, the centre is planning to open in 2021. The US-Norwegian partnership, called Kolos, claims the local climate and access to hydro power will cut energy costs by as much as 60%. However, moving data centres towards the poles is not a straightforward venture; building upon recent concerns about data security and encryption, many countries and trade areas such as the EU have passed laws that require citizen data to be stored on servers within their national borders.

Furthermore, an additional environmental impact of cloud computing is the electronic waste produced by the industry. In 2018, 50 million metric tons of e-waste was generated globally as, for commercial reasons, equipment is often replaced as soon as more efficient technology becomes available. Other ecological impacts of cloud computing include the coolant chemicals used in the server rooms, which are often hazardous, and the battery back-ups of the data centres. The components of these batteries are often mined unsustainably, and the disposal of both toxic batteries and the chemical coolants could have a devastating impact on the local environment if not properly managed.

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Opportunities

Cloud computing is dominated by a few large corporations, making it more likely that public pressure can be effective in reducing their environmental impact. The three largest cloud computing providers are all amongst the world’s top five most valuable companies. Amazon, Google and Microsoft in particular have been subject to both praise and criticism in response to their sustainability and environmental practices. Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 through their use of renewable energy and carbon offsetting purchases; the company has offset over 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) in the last 12 years. Whilst there has been much debate on the sustainability and effectiveness of carbon offsetting as a long-term strategy, there is no doubt this is a positive change for the IT industry in response to growing emissions.

In 2018, Amazon exceeded 50% renewable energy usage for the year and have since announced and begun construction of four new wind farms in Ireland, Sweden and the US. These wind farms, combined with their 9 pre-existing renewable energy projects, should generate the same amount of electricity as the annual consumption of over 260 000 US homes. However, in February 2019, a Greenpeace report accused Amazon of abandoning its commitment to 100% renewable energy, noting that some of Amazon’s largest data centres in Virginia are powered by just 12% renewable energy. Amazon responded to the report by reaffirming their commitment to 100% renewable energy and have extended this by pledging to net-zero carbon by 2040. At the time of publication, they have yet to publish a realistic plan for meeting this goal.

Risks

Despite the ongoing initiatives, cloud computing is not yet at net-zero carbon and therefore the environmental cost must be compared to its benefits. Some larger scale uses of cloud computing, such as mining crypto-currencies, arguably have little societal value and it has been reported that the Bitcoin industry alone could produce enough CO2 to result in a 2 degrees Celsius warming by 2050.

The upcoming decade will see continued growth in demand for creating effective mass data storage and processing capacity. It is unclear whether demand growth will exceed improvements in energy efficiency, and thus whether the energy footprint of data centres will grow or stabilise. This is why it is critical that large corporations invest in next-generation storage and cooling technologies to cope with the expected growth in demand. Ideally this will run alongside continuing investments in renewable power, minimising the environmental impact of emissions from this sector as it expands.

Ultimately, cloud computing is more energy efficient than the alternative and facilitates environmentally beneficial services and economic growth. However, it is not without environmental ramifications and therefore consumers should demand the highest environmental standards alongside future plans for green investments. As we look into the future, the only safe, sustainable way to ensure minimal environmental impact alongside the development of cloud computing is to vocalise and establish these requirements. If we demand greater transparency and improved global standards, we can have it all.