Digital is not carbon free – The true cost of cloud computing

There is virtually nothing in our modern lives that does not have some sort of negative carbon cost. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, the devices in our pockets or our travel habits. Cloud computing may seem invisible but is no different when it comes to carbon costs.

In the 90s we were told to turn off our monitors and shut down our PCs at the end of the day. Maybe the office printer would be turned off over xmas.

As we moved into the 00s we became aware of the overall lifecycle costs of our device – from the minerals powering our processors to the landfill cost of e-waste disposal.

Now we are starting to see a greater awareness of the hidden costs of cloud computing prompted by headlines such as the recent news surrounding the environmental cost of ‘mining’ the last remaining bitcoins and the energy required to manage the existing transactions.

Equally on a more personal level, whether storing your music, photos and video memories or sending an email, an energy deficit is attached.

If a sent or opened email is the equivalent to 1 gram of carbon dioxide what cost the giga and terabytes of data we store?

In 2019 the IT industry was estimated to have generated 1 billion tonnes of CO2. To put this in perspective pre-covid air travel generated approximately 950 million tonnes. By some measurements if the internet was a country it would be the world’s 6th largest polluter. The upcoming decade will see continued growth in demand for creating mass data storage and processing capacity to the point where by 2030 anything up to 20% of the world’s electricity could be consumed by data centres.

This is why it is critical that large corporations invest in next-generation storage and cooling technologies to cope with the expected growth in demand.

So how do we, as tech industry workers, avoid data and application bloat – two of the main contributors to the negative impact IT services can have on the environment. There are techniques we can use in our day to day software development effort, such as compression and clean code that can make a difference. Software providers Digital Detox lead the way in this field. Tom Greenwood of WholeGrain Studio has produced a ‘Sustainable web design guide’.

In terms of cloud providers Agiltima work with cloud services that have a Power Utilisation Efficiency (PUE) as close to 1 as possible (PUE is a unit to measure a data centre’s efficiency). GoogleCloud are considered one of the cleanest Cloud providers out there (claiming a PUE of 1.1) as they move towards carbon neutrality in 2030. Smaller providers like DataVita have a PUE of 1.8 which makes it a leader in the industry.

Ultimately, cloud computing is more energy efficient than the alternative of onsite data centres and local comuting. However, it is not without environmental ramifications and therefore client consumers should demand the highest environmental standards alongside future plans for green investments.

And what can we personally do on a day to day basis? Keep turning those devices off at the end of the day, try to limit the number of devices you need in your life and think about that next email you send. Let’s make tech part of the solution not part of the problem.