Why we can no longer afford to overlook the environmental impact of the cloud

In this guest post, Amy Czuba, account director at digital product design agency Nexer Digital, sets out why the environmental impact of using cloud and internet-based services needs to be talked about more

We often talk about ‘the cloud’ as if data is hosted ’somewhere in the sky’. By not thinking about it as a physical entity, many organisations fail to consider the impact it has on the environment. In reality, the cloud consists of over 7.2 million power-hungry datacentres across the world that constantly use huge amounts of electricity to power and millions of gallons of water to cool.

Annually, the internet produces the same amount of carbon as Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangladesh, The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Mongolia combined. In fact, Lancaster University estimates that the cloud is responsible for between a quarter and 1.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, equating to at least 100 million tonnes per year.

Yet despite the impact datacentres have on our environment, this issue has been grossly overlooked to-date. Public discussion about the environmental impact of cloud computing has been trounced by news of other energy-guzzling activities, such as cryptocurrency mining.

With datacentres only projected to increase significantly over the next five years as more aspects of life and work become digitalised, we can no longer afford to think about the cloud as an intangible, invisible entity with no real environmental impact.

And, despite the efforts of many big tech companies to offset their carbon emissions and promises to replenish, recycle and preserve as much water as they use to cool their datacentres, they need to consider their impact on the environment in which they operate and take steps to reduce energy consumption in the first place.

One of the most impactful ways an organisation can minimise the impact of its servers on the environment is to use green-powered datacentres, or to invest in greener technology. Microsoft is just one example, with the company increasing accessibility to serverless and open-source software in recent years to minimise the cooling processes and ventilation required in its datacentres.

With regards to hosting, organisations should check that their service provider has a meaningful sustainability statement and policies around the use of green energy in datacentres as well as other facilities, alongside wider eco-credentials in energy efficiency. The best policies will have tangible, measurable commitments rather than vague statements. If your existing host isn’t ticking all the boxes, The Green Web Foundation has a directory of sustainable hosts.

Organisations should also consider the different types of data generated and held, and whether storing it is necessary. Unbeknown to many, storing unnecessary data is a key carbon emitter. This is immense in scale with an estimated 90% of all data becoming redundant three months after it’s created. An organisation may have servers full of documents that are surplus to requirements, for example, or be retaining emails from five or more years ago that are no longer needed. Significant improvements can be made by instilling good habits, such as deleting all emails over two or three years old and removing duplicate files as they’re identified.

Businesses aren’t the only ones unaware of the impact their online lives can have on the environment. The digital activity of consumers, including online messaging, using search engines and storing data, contributes significantly to carbon emissions. Masses of energy is also used to fuel video streaming services, upload images to social media or even just browse the shops online. Sending just one regular email could equate to 4g CO2e. By being more mindful of our online activity and data storage behaviours, we have the potential to make a significant difference.

Nexer Digital is working with clients, such as Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, on initiatives like these, championing digital sustainability through initial audits and ongoing roadmaps that improve the digital carbon footprint.

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