Consider the following scenario: We are somewhere in the early 2020’s. As a result of a couple of viral tweets or a media report, your company’s carbon footprint suddenly becomes a public matter and maybe even a serious publicity issue. Management decides that it’s time to become more environmentally conscious by powering offices from renewable energy, buying electric company cars and by making attempts to establish remote working or cut down on business flights.
Depending on your company’s business model, it might become obvious that a not so insignificant part of its energy consumption and carbon footprint actually come from massive IT operations running in mainly fossil fuel powered data centers. Now, the IT department might be in a troublesome situation: Moving all operations to a greener data center can be a very costly and risky thing to do, due to a phenomenon known as vendor lock-in: Software, operations and deployment scripts are so entangled with the current - let’s say - cloud infrastructure, that it would be extremely challenging to make the change.
Recently, after carbon emissions from air travel caught a lot of attention, public opinion started to take on the ICT sector, especially video streaming platforms. And not necessarily for the wrong reasons: According to The Shift Project’s Lean ICT Report, the ICT sectors carbon footprint increased from 2.5% to 3.7% of global emissions, overtaking air travel’s 2.4% share. Of these 3.7%, 19% come from data centers and 16% from network operations. The rest mainly consists of emissions from hardware production and terminal usage.
A popular example amongst these reports is Netflix, presumably because of their large market and traffic share. The company famously runs its operations on AWS, one of the more problematic choices in terms of carbon emissions (more on that later).
Because of vendor lock-in, a decision for a self-hosted solution or a large scale cloud provider is often a long term decision and should therefore consider other long term trends, such as climate change and possibly an either self-imposed or customer-required trend towards a greener industry.
And yet, for these decisions, often only technology, costs, and maybe convenience is taken into account.
Let’s take a closer look at the current developments around cloud computing’s carbon footprint.
Is cloud computing greener than self hosted solutions?
As Amazon points out, a NRDC report shows, that “a typical large-scale cloud provider achieves approximately 65% server utilization rates versus 15% on-premises”. Therefore, a lot less running machines are used, which “represents an 84% reduction in the amount of power required”. So the general answer seems to be: Yes, cloud computing has the potential to be a lot more energy-efficient and therefore potentially greener than classic solutions.
However, the actual carbon footprint depends on where that energy comes from. Moving from a green provider to a more fossil fuel powered cloud (such as AWS) would have the opposite effect. Also of course, the principle above is true for any large-scale cloud provider, not just AWS.
How green are the big three?
An important distinction should be made: Energy consumption and carbon emissions are two different things. An operation that consumes high amounts of electricity can still have zero carbon emissions if that energy comes from renewable sources.
On the other hand, carbon neutrality doesn’t necessarily mean that an operation has zero carbon emissions. Many companies invest into projects with a negative carbon footprint to compensate for their own operations. These investments should be ones that wouldn’t be made otherwise and should not slow down attempts to actually reach a zero carbon emissions goal.
Some companies such as Google and Microsoft announced to already run their operations carbon neutral. But the strategies chosen by the big three cloud providers are inherently different from one another. It’s worth to dig a little deeper.
At the moment, Microsoft claims to run all operations carbon neutral, including their data centers. In 2012, the company put price on its assumed carbon footprint to encourage operations to go carbon neutral. The money has since been used for environmental projects with negative carbon footprints, very much like air travel compensations work.
Since then, Microsoft seems to be on track, having reached their 60% renewables milestone at the end of 2019 and expecting to reach 70% by 2023.
Google Cloud Platform
Google started their plan to have a carbon neutral footprint way back in in 2009. Since then, the company has reached its goal to effectively power all of their operations (including Google Cloud Platform) by renewable energy. And they are very open about how they achieved it by buying renewable energy from the same grid their data centers are using, a very interesting insight.
Amazon also has a sustainability timeline for their cloud operations, claiming to have reached a 50% share of renewable energy in 2018. The goal to reach 100% net carbon neutrality by 2040 however, seems to have vanished from AWS’s official statements.
AWS is also frequently criticized by Greenpeace for not actually sticking to that plan. A report found that only 12% of AWS’s largest data center is powered by renewable energy and unlike Google, Amazon doesn’t seem to make up for this by buying renewable energy from other providers. Amazon’s carbon neutrality claim for their Frankfurt data center is also questioned by Greenpeace owing to their non-transparency on the matter.
Of course, there are countless smaller providers selling self hosted and cloud solutions, and some of them already run on 100% renewable energy sources. So it might not be necessary at all to move your infrastructure into a complex, large-scale cloud.
The takeaway here of course is not to make a decision solely based on environmental considerations. Yet, observing the accelerating trend towards a greener industry, it could be argued that a long term decision on a company’s IT infrastructure should include considerations on that infrastructure’s carbon footprint. Either as part of a business plan - or simply as a matter of consciousness.