The cloud's carbon footprint: Solutions for sustainable computing

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Nowadays, almost every business leverages cloud computing—94% to be exact—for its cost-saving, scalability, and collaborative benefits. However, while its advantages are evident, a significant issue remains: Cloud computing emissions contribute 4% of global greenhouse gases.

Cloud hyper scalers like AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud are making big promises to reduce their environmental impact—a necessity to keep consumers on-side in 2024. But, with more data being stored in the cloud and, therefore, in data centers larger than ever, cloud hyper scalers are fighting an uphill battle.

Let's unravel the environmental challenges cloud hyper scalers face and learn how businesses can leverage cloud computing responsibly.

Sashank Purighalla

Founder and CEO of BOS Framework.

The cloud sustainability challenge

All the major cloud providers have pledged their intent to go green. In fact, Google Cloud has consistently matched 100% of its electricity consumption with renewable energy sources between 2017 and 2022. And Microsoft has vowed that its cloud data centers will be powered by 100% renewable energy sources by 2025.

While this is a step in the right direction, one major issue is renewable energy certificates (REC). When a renewable energy source generates one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity, like solar or wind, it sends this energy to the grid, which, in turn, creates a REC. Companies can then buy these RECs to offset their carbon footprint, but critics argue they don't guarantee clean energy use.

The problem is that both fossil fuels and renewable energy power the grid, and once the energy enters the grid, nobody knows exactly where the electricity they're using comes from. So, companies and cloud hyper scalers could buy all the RECs they need to look like they use 100% renewable electricity, but in reality, the energy they use comes from a 'dirty' grid.

To combat this greenwashing, many companies, including cloud hyper scalers, are moving toward Time-based Energy Attribute Certificates (T-EACs). These provide a timestamp of how and where the energy was produced, enabling a more accurate reflection of companies matching their energy consumption.

In 2022, Amazon's carbon footprint was 71.3 million metric tons, over twice the amount produced by Hong Kong’s entire region. And with Google admitting that "there are still regions and times of day… [when] we are forced to rely on fossil fuels to meet our electricity needs," the journey to carbon-neutral has begun, but it looks like it will be a long one.

However, with cloud computing essential to most businesses, companies can still implement strategies to lighten their carbon load.

Business solutions: Balancing cloud innovation with environmental responsibility

It's no secret that cloud hyper scalers have work to do regarding their environmental impact. Yet, there are still various ways businesses can leverage cloud computing while decreasing their energy usage and carbon footprint.

For example, companies can focus on reducing their resource consumption with on-demand scalability. Many cloud providers offer built-in auto-scaling features that allow businesses to define scaling policies based on metrics like central processing usage, memory, or network traffic. When these metrics reach predefined thresholds, the platform automatically scales resources up or down to meet demand.

Businesses can also consolidate servers through virtualization. This lets them run multiple virtual machines (VMs) on a single physical server, boosting hardware utilization and saving energy. Popular platforms include VMware vSphere, Microsoft Hyper-V, and open-source options. However, planning is crucial. Businesses need to analyze their IT infrastructure, group compatible servers, select a platform, and create a migration plan to minimize downtime.

Most cloud hyper scalers also offer carbon footprint analysis tools and dashboards, allowing businesses to track their energy consumption and emission profiles. Microsoft has its Emission Impact Dashboard, AWS has its Customer Carbon Footprint Tool, and Google Cloud has the Carbon Footprint tool. Google even allows customers to choose which region to host their application, allowing them to select the location with the lowest carbon emissions.

These tools offer businesses clear insights into the carbon footprint associated with their cloud usage. The data generated by these tools can create sustainability reports demonstrating a company's commitment to environmental responsibility. This transparency can enhance brand image and appeal to environmentally conscious customers and investors.

Wrapping up

Millennial and Gen Z purchasing power will surpass the boomers in around 2030, with $68 trillion in wealth transferring to the younger generations. And with 62% of Gen Z shoppers preferring to buy from sustainable brands, employing green measures in the cloud and sharing that information with clients can help increase sales and enhance customer loyalty.

So, although cloud hyper scalers still have some way to go when it comes to being 100% carbon-neutral, businesses can implement their own green computing strategies. With on-demand scalability and server consolidation, companies can take control of their own carbon footprint and turn their green cloud use into a competitive advantage.

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Sashank Purighalla is Founder and CEO of BOS Framework.