Earth Day 2021: Cloud’s contribution to a sustainable future

In this guest post, Pip White, UK and Ireland managing director at Google Cloud, sets out how cloud and datacentre providers are putting sustainability at the heart of their operations this Earth Day. 

For over half a century, as many as 1 billion people in more than 193 countries have come together each year on Earth Day to demonstrate their support for environmental protection. The vulnerabilities of our environment have never been so apparent, and as we approach Earth Day 2021, protecting the world around us is more than ever a global obligation.

For individuals and businesses alike, sustainability is now a priority, and this rising social conscience has propelled environmental responsibility to the forefront of corporate strategy. What many are starting to realise is that the technology that drives their businesses can also play a key role in driving their sustainability objectives.

Public cloud technology, for example, is leading efforts to streamline and decarbonise business processes. Even as more people than ever are working remotely, online shopping, streaming films and banking via mobile phones and laptops, the cloud technology powering these behaviours continues to advance towards more sustainable practices in design, build and operation.

According to a paper published in Science, the amount of computing done in cloud datacentres increased by around 550 percent between 2010 and 2018. However, data centres today only account for around 1 percent of global electricity consumption – the same proportion as in 2010.

There are three main facets of the cloud that make it beneficial for sustainably-minded businesses: infrastructure, innovation and information. The way datacentres are designed, their capacity to be a platform for developing new technology, and the sheer volume of information they can store and process can all contribute to common sustainability objectives.

Leaner and greener cloud datacentres

At Google we hope to help bring about a world powered entirely by low-cost, carbon-free energy, as soon as possible. In 2017 we were the first company to match 100% with our annual electricity consumption with renewable energy purchases and we have done so ever since. In 2020, we went a further step by pledging to run our datacentres and office campuses on 24/7 carbon-free energy everywhere and at all times.

The technology industry has always operated on the cutting edge, but recently nowhere more so than in delivering energy efficiencies. Last year, datacentre energy efficiency gains were found to outpace those in any other section of the economy, and they are getting more efficient all the time.

Migrations to the cloud do not just lead to better environmental outcomes, but also better business. A recent report by Capgemini found that a significant majority of consumers (79%) are altering their buying habits based on sustainability. There is no doubt that these types of buying behaviour shifts apply to businesses too.

By seeking to decarbonise our datacentre electricity supply, Google Cloud is supporting its customers by providing the cleanest cloud in the industry. On the way to achieving this goal, each Google Cloud region will be supplied by a mix of more and more carbon-free energy and less fossil-based energy.

We measure our progress towards decarbonisation with our Carbon Free Energy Percentage (CFE%), and we share the average hourly CFE% to empower our customers to make greener IT decisions. For example, Salesforce has already started using this data to integrate environmental impact into their IT strategy as they work to decarbonise the services they provide to their customers.

The energy efficiencies gained by moving to the cloud are also supplemented by continual innovation in the technologies that underpin the everyday running of datacentres.

For example, recent advances in workload planning mean it is now possible to shift the timings of non-urgent compute tasks to when low-carbon power sources are most plentiful. What’s more, by applying smart artificial intelligence and machine learning to cooling systems, we have been able to reduce the energy used to cool our data centres by 30%.

According to IDC, cloud computing could prevent one billion metric tons of CO2 emissions by 2024. Just as importantly, these migrations can also unlock new opportunities for other businesses to spearhead their own sustainable initiatives.

Sustainable initiatives are for life, not just for Earth Day

It is not just cloud infrastructure data that can be used for good. The third sustainable facet of the cloud is in the huge volumes of information it stores, and its capacity to quickly analyse vast existing data sets to support more environmentally-friendly operations.

By significantly speeding up data analysis, the cloud allows businesses to tackle environmental questions in real-time, advancing sustainable business practices and eco-friendly decision making.

Consumer goods brand Unilever is one company advancing its own sustainable initiatives using cloud technology. In collaboration with Google, it is combining the power of cloud computing with satellite imagery and AI to build a more holistic view of the forests, water cycles, and biodiversity that intersect Unilever’s supply chain.

The partnership will provide a more complete picture of ecosystems connected to supply and raise sustainable sourcing standards, bringing Unilever closer to its goal of ending deforestation and regenerating nature. That is just one example of where the power of data can lead to measurable sustainable outcomes – and really, it is just the beginning.

As the international nature of Earth Day demonstrates, the fight to achieve a more sustainable future transcends individuals or specific groups. In line with this cause, safe in the knowledge that cloud providers are consistently looking to enhance their use of clean energy and sustainable practices, businesses can focus on advancing green initiatives of their own.

Though the drive for sustainability within technology is never-ending, with innovation and collaboration at its core, the public cloud provides businesses with a strong platform from which to set, drive and meet crucial environmental goals.

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