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The carbon footprint of a cloud

Where did the cloud come from?

It’s difficult to attribute the invention of the “cloud” to a single person or entity. In fact, there’s still an ongoing debate about who was first to coin the term “cloud computing”. This is most likely because the concept evolved over time through the collective efforts of numerous researchers, engineers and organisations.

But we do know that, in 2006, Amazon launched its cloud computing services (Amazon Web Services – AWS), which played a pivotal role in popularising and commercialising cloud computing, which was closely followed by Microsoft (Azure), Google (Google Cloud), and IBM (IBM Cloud), who all made significant contributions and investments into the development and expansion of this industry.

These combined ventures helped shape the cloud into the vital online technology that’s used all over the world today. In 2022, the global cloud computing market was valued at $569.31 billion, with it projected to grow to $2,432.87 billion by 2030. The reasons behind this astonishing takeover include the benefits it provides compared to more traditional physical servers, such as increased stability, security, speed, scalability, and in some cases, a lower environmental impact.

Why does cloud computing have a lower carbon footprint?

The cloud is not really a cloud. The cloud is a metaphor for a global network of remote servers that operate as a single ecosystem where data is stored in massive structures filled with thousands of hard drive-bearing racks, called data centres, of which there are now millions around the world. Today, data centres are thought to make up as much as 3.7% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, and as a result, there are growing concerns about the environmental impact of the cloud.

But despite these looming figures, in general, utilising cloud servers results in a smaller carbon footprint than using physical servers. Let’s take a look at why this is.

The cloud has a higher energy efficiency

Cloud servers are hosted by third-party providers and deliver computing resources over a network, predominantly through the internet.

This means that cloud providers can consolidate numerous virtual servers onto a smaller number of energy-sapping physical machines, helping to achieve economies of scale and reduce the overall consumption per computing task. In turn, this reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with energy consumption.

In addition, the data centres used by cloud servers are increasingly being designed to be more energy efficient and powered by renewable sources. This is however not always the case, as we will discuss later on in more detail, and still largely depends on regional infrastructure.

The cloud optimises its resources

Underutilised servers consume energy without effectively performing tasks, leading to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions being released.

Unlike physical servers, the cloud can overcome this challenge by offering the ability to adjust computing resources based on demand. Essentially, it provides a shared infrastructure approach, allowing multiple users to share a common pool of computing resources based on utilisation rate. This helps to deliver a higher performance per unit of energy consumed and avoids problems like overprovisioning and wasted resources, resulting in lower GHG emissions.

Cloud data centres can be located strategically

Physical servers are typically hosted on-site and only accessed by users at that location. In contrast, cloud infrastructure can be located almost anywhere because it is accessed by users remotely. This enables cloud providers to have flexibility when choosing data centre locations and be strategic when it comes to considering important factors that impact environmental performance, like proximity to users, minimising data transmission distances, and renewable energy availability.

Although, the ability to choose the location of data centres has not yet led to a consensus about where the best data centre spots are. Especially as the world's climate changes. Many providers opt for northern countries for new data centres due to the colder climates and windy weather, which both provide natural cooling for equipment and higher rates of available greener energy.

On the other hand, rising energy costs amid a warming planet is pushing some cloud providers to consider novel places to house their server racks, one example being Dammam, located near the construction of new solar plants in the Arabian desert.

Cloud servers can reduce electronic waste

Physical servers can become obsolete quickly due to ever-evolving hardware requirements, and as a result, often fall into the overfamiliar trap of becoming hazardous electronic waste (e-waste).

Each year, more than 50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated globally, averaging some seven kilograms of e-waste per person. Not only does the cloud allow multiple virtual servers to run on a smaller number of physical machines, but it can efficiently manage workloads, virtualise resources, and facilitate upgrades or maintenance, all of which are contributing factors to extending hardware lifespans and reducing the amount of e-waste generated. Cloud servers also offer centralised data storage and backup solutions, eliminating the need for excessive physical electronics like individual hard drives.

All of the factors above contribute to the lower environmental impact of cloud servers compared to physical servers. But the story does not end here...

Are the clouds greener on the other side?

Even though there are plenty of reasons why cloud servers are the more eco-conscious choice compared to physical servers, don’t let that fool you into thinking that they’re all “green”.

Here's some reasons why different cloud providers’ carbon footprints can vary.

Size matters when it come to data centres

Large cloud server providers typically operate massive data centres that cater to a vast number of users and handle enormous workloads. These require significant resources and energy consumption compared to smaller data centres.

However, there’s a catch. The computing output of data centres increased 550% between 2010 and 2018, but during this time, the energy consumption from those data centres grew by just 6%. This means that although at face value smaller data centres seem like they achieve emissions reductions, the concept of economies of scale throws a curve ball here, with the lowest energy per unit up for debate.

Cloud server providers differ when it comes to energy

Smaller cloud server providers and new players in the industry may have more flexibility to design their less overwhelmingly large data centres with optimal efficiency in mind.

But on the other hand, companies with more capital to invest could have the ability to implement the latest environmental technologies as and when they are released, such as advanced cooling techniques and power management systems, making phased improvements to their facilities to reduce their energy consumption.

The geographic locations of data centres

More bespoke cloud providers most likely have more freedom over where they situate their facilities as they aren’t so constrained by the need to cater for a global user base. This means they often have more agility in sourcing their energy supply and can proactively seek renewable sources to power their data centres, minimising their reliance on fossil fuel-based energy.

It's important to really understand your cloud computing emissions

Our recommendation is to choose cloud computing when it comes to your digital operations. As we have discussed, environmentally, cloud servers have several benefits over physical servers, and these are set to continue to improve over time as technology advances and renewable energy infrastructure improves across the globe.

But how do you make sure your cloud computing has the lowest carbon footprint?

Choose the right cloud provider

Look for providers who have data centres powered by renewable energy or are located in regions with lower grid carbon intensities. A good resource is the The Greenweb Foundation’s Green Web Directory, which is a compiled list of greener cloud service providers, including smaller and more local options, with minimised carbon footprints.

Measure and track your emissions

Perhaps most importantly though, when it comes to reducing your digital carbon footprint, you need to start by understanding where the emissions are coming from.

This will allow you to identify emissions hotspots and recognise specific opportunities to decarbonise your digital operations. Collecting data and quantifying your carbon footprint may uncover particular actions that could make a significant difference to your organisation, like the need to data cleanse and delete unused resources when they're no longer useful, for example.

Plus, having this understanding of your carbon footprint and knowledge about how cloud-based emissions contribute towards it will inevitably lead to efficiency improvements and cost savings too. It's a win-win, really.

To find out more about how our carbon accounting software can help you track your emissions and decarbonise with confidence, get in touch with our expert team.


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