How could your digital lifestyle damage the environment?

23 March 2023 by Rufus Bullough
blog author

​We are all utilising the benefits of cloud technology and need to realise our daily use’s vast impact on the planet.

A recent Panorama documentary Is the Cloud Damaging the Planet? highlighted the environmental cost of storing data in the cloud as every click of a button generates carbon. Cloud storage requires infrastructure to house the systems, which can have a heavy impact.

You may be surprised to learn that your online actions are, without a doubt, contributing to the climate crisis. An enormous amount of human activity is connected to the cloud – a colossal network of computers storing unlimited data.

The cloud plays a major role in everyday life, which is taking its toll on the environment - as we move towards a digital economy for better prosperity, we are more hyper-connected than ever and rocketing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

While similar in many functions to the operations within a data centre (the physical building for helping businesses with data storage and operations), we all rely heavily on the cloud’s virtual data storage resource. And the sky’s the limit.

Negative impact

While previous (and disputed) claims suggested that a five-minute internet search is equal to boiling the kettle in terms of carbon emissions, there is no denying that our online footprint is increasing rapidly as we undergo a global digital transformation.

With the world so reliant on data, more than 4.1 billion people (or 53.6 percent of the global population) now use the internet according to a study that is sending tonnes of carbon soaring into the atmosphere on a vast scale. One hundred million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a year, to be precise.

According to OVO Energy, the internet accounts for 10 percent of global electricity demand so while we transition to electric vehicles, switch lights off, use less heating and limit air travel, we seem to be ignoring another glaring culprit. Each email we send generates 1g of carbon, weighing about the same as a paperclip and collectively, billions of emails are sent in an average day.

Energy is consumed in three places each time emails are checked. The PC, laptop or phone uses electricity to retrieve and display emails, the network uses electricity to ensure wireless routers and network switches are operating and the server uses power to receive, send and store emails.

While TikTok and Instagram fans unwittingly create CO2 emissions, reading online books is another use of data and cloud storage. More use equals more data stored. And the cloud becomes even more prominent.

Benefits of Cloud and data storage

It’s not all bad. TikTok and other social media aside, it goes without saying that businesses and people need to embark on the transition to a digital world for more efficient operations. The days of paper piles are long gone as more companies adopt a digital transformation and the cloud has become the powerhouse for holding all data that we use daily.

Everything is becoming digitalised, from the music and films we stream to the box sets we watch and the photos we keep. All these features store data in the cloud and increase your carbon footprint, so whether you are a business or a consumer, your actions and subsequent impact counts.

However, according to Japanese IT service and consulting firm, NTT Data, the major cloud providers are taking sustainability seriously and acting at pace to mitigate negative impacts.

The firm works with all three heavyweights in the cloud computing market: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform. The trio is focused on renewable power with ambitious commitments, some extending to the water used in cooling systems.

Ambitions from innovative major players in the IT world are impactful from the sheer level of speed they can work to embed sustainable practices, compared to other industries.

NTT Data highlights that both Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform will use 100 percent renewable energy all of the time by 2030. Google has been using 100 percent renewables since 2017, while AWS and Microsoft signed up to Purchase Power Agreements (PPA) to reach their 2025 target, enabling an amount of renewable energy to be issued to the firms.

Here is an overview of each company’s efforts to boost sustainability in the cloud:

1.Microsoft Azure

An immense amount of power is generated from storing data in the cloud and water usage is enormous.

Microsoft has made a bold pledge to replenish more water than it consumes by 2030, which is no mean feat as cooling systems are constantly in use to prevent technology infrastructure from overheating.

The company has teamed up with the global platform ClimateWorks Foundation and 20 other heading organizations to form the Carbon Call, strengthening greenhouse gas accountability by mobilising innovation, action, investment and resources.

In addition, the organisation has developed Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability to enable businesses to keep contrasting data sources in one place and provide knowledge for improving sustainability practices by tracking, measuring, analysing and reporting progress.

Innovations include using data-driven solutions to eliminate water and energy consumption by implementing new server cooling methods and managing energy more efficiently by optimizing consumption more effectively.

2.Google Cloud Platform

Google achieved carbon neutrality in its cloud operations back in 2007 but aims for all its data centres to run on carbon-free energy by 2030. By supporting multiple products simultaneously, users will have more efficiently distributed resources.

It aims to share its tech learning, methods and funding to help other global organisations transition towards more sustainable, carbon-free systems for greener operations.

The company believes its energy efficiency efforts make the cloud less impactful on the environment and conducted a study that showed businesses using Gmail have decreased the impact on the planet by up to 98 percent compared to those running email on local servers.

Google increases the temperature of its data centres to 80°F and uses outside air for cooling. It is estimated that a Google data centre boasts double the efficiency of an average enterprise data centre and willingly shares data to help drive the IT industry towards a brighter – and cleaner - future.

3.Amazon Web Services (AWS)

The Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI) was launched to enhance and accelerate sustainability research by minimising the cost and time required to analyse large amounts of data. The scheme helps researchers and innovators take sustainability to the next level by equipping them with the right tools and expertise to drive change.

Consumers can access a dashboard called AWS Customer Carbon Footprint Tool to analyse changes in emissions as workloads are migrated to AWS. You will be able to forecast future emissions to plan for the future, in line with Amazon’s target of operating with 100 percent renewable energy.

The dashboard looks at the carbon emissions associated with using AWS products. Emissions can be reported via comprehensive data, following Greenhouse Gas Protocol standards.

Another tool the company offers is the Well-Architected Framework which looks at how to minimise the environmental impacts of running cloud workloads and understand the impact.

AWS also offers a Data Exchange function to use third-party sustainability-related data in the cloud and is collaborating with organisations to ensure ESG data is readily available to customers.

Are you concerned about your company’s environmental impact when using data and the cloud? Acre has 20 years of experience placing sustainability professionals in organisations across the globe. If your business requires a sustainability professional to help address the issues within your workplace or you want a further discussion about technology and digital transformation, please get in touch.

Rufus Bullough is Head of Technology – Sustainable Business at Acre UK. He works with Boards and Executive Committees to identify, evaluate and secure the modern blend of skill sets required where performance, purpose and reputation meet sustainability and technology.