Taking a look at the ICT sector’s role in climate change

By Leah Goldfarb
IT sector accounts for 4% of all carbon emissions, twice that of the air travel industry, says Leah Goldfarb, Environmental Impact Officer, Platform.sh

When we think of “climate villains”, we tend to imagine belching smokestacks, mass deforestation and similar extreme examples of visible climate damage. In fact, a lot of the damage is being done in less obvious ways—for example, the IT sector accounts for 4% of all carbon emissions, twice that of the air travel industry.

It’s easy to ignore the emissions generated by the IT sector and focus on the climate benefits, such as reducing the amount of paper used by offices, and enabling remote working and meetings. But any business that wants to be environmentally conscious needs to make sure that its IT is sustainable too.

Making greener choices

The good news is that many businesses are very keen to limit emissions and be more sustainable. Google Cloud , Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure all have renewable energy targets primarily thanks to PPAs (Power Purchase Agreements) that allow providers to buy renewable energy at a large scale and over a long period of time (e.g, 20 years). This has injected a lot of new clean energy into the grid—though not necessarily reducing the amount of “dirty” electricity being used. Google and Azure have net zero plans for 2030, while AWS is targeting 2040.  

These big corporations have been moving in the right direction for years, but it is often hard to compare their promises with the GHG protocols of carbon auditing and reporting.

Many businesses consider “moving to the cloud” as part of going green, but the move to cloud hosting means that many businesses may have not considered changes beyond that—outsourcing means that it is someone else’s problem. This is changing. Earlier this year, Gartner said 90% of organisations have stepped up spending on tackling emissions, and that carbon emissions data will be one of the top three considerations in cloud purchasing decisions by 2025. Customers are asking more questions, and providers are giving more information.

Businesses and the cloud providers can work together in a number of ways to reduce cloud emissions:

  • Auditing—Businesses may decide to work with their providers to estimate their current emissions. Working with a specialist agency to perform a complete carbon audit is a more robust approach. Fully understanding the current situation gives businesses a baseline to work from, and a complete audit means that they can understand how much carbon they are responsible for. Ideally a carbon audit would provide data concerning location-based emissions, instead of solely market-based numbers. 
  • Optimising—There are two ways to optimize cloud use to ensure that businesses are using their cloud resources effectively and limiting emissions. The first is to optimise the code itself. It’s important to keep in mind that optimizing individual lines of code may seem as though any effect would be limited, the overall effect can be very worthwhile, especially if that code is repeatedly used, for example in a fleet of websites. Tiny changes in repeated code can reap big rewards.
    The other way is to optimise how the cloud is actually used. In a cloud computing audit done by Greenly, Platform.sh was found to use 5-12 fewer resources than a standard workpackage deployment to the cloud.  Increasing service density so that servers are run at near-capacity means they run more efficiently. This means that fewer resources are used and the final application runs more quickly.
  • Location—Cloud computing offers the possibility that data and services can be moved anywhere where there is an appropriate data centre. When starting up a new project businesses should choose the data centre located on the electrical grid with the lowest carbon intensity. For example, a   in Sweden, using renewable energy, can emit up to ten times less CO₂ per kWh than one powered by coal-generated electricity in Germany.
  • Information—To make better, greener decisions, businesses need access to the right information, and that means more information than is present on the dashboards currently available from cloud providers. While cloud providers are starting to provide some carbon emission data on their dashboards, these numbers are typically market-based. To have a clear climate impact, customers should also have location-based carbon emissions data, and ideally should also be provided with details on electricity use, which is not currently the case.

People and businesses understand that climate change is real, and they want to do their part. The onus falls upon us to limit our carbon emissions but we can only do this with the right information. For an increasing number of businesses, the data provided on the carbon dashboards of cloud providers will be just as important, if not more so, than the carbon footprint of buildings they rent, how employees travel, and the waste they prevent.

 

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