The information technology (IT) industry is responsible for around 5% of worldwide total carbon emissions and can also have a big influence on the other 95%. Why? Because automation and centralisation of processes via the cloud is increasing the proportion of carbon emissions that are controlled by data centres.

In other words, the responsibility for environmental impact is shifting from consumers to producers.

You can see this in the graph below, which shows the change in spend on ‘enterprise IT’ (spending on servers, storage systems and networks within enterprises) and cloud services (spending on so-called Infrastructure-as-a-Service and Platform-as-a-Service) since 2005.


Economies of scale

It might seem that this should make little difference to energy consumption. After all, computers use energy whether they are on your premises, or in a data centre somewhere. However, that’s not strictly true, because big data centres can take advantage of economies of scale. For example, three companies (Microsoft, Amazon, and Google) between them operate half the world’s 600 hyperscale data centres. The carbon footprint of these massive data centres, as a function of computing power and facilities, is considerably lower than the sum of all the individual servers that they have replaced.

Data centres can also support serverless computing that allows code to be executed on-demand in the cloud. This means that jobs can be scheduled to optimise energy use—for example, by running loads when renewable power systems are active. Finally, they are big enough to be able to take advantage of systems for trading renewable energy resources. This can ensure that renewable energy is used more often and more routinely.

Taking responsibility

Of course, this only helps if data centres and cloud service providers act responsibly too. Fortunately, most large data centres are now cleaning up their act by increasing their use of renewable energy and carbon offsets. This is often to ensure that they comply with environmental legislation. Almost all cloud service providers also have strategies to reach carbon neutrality.

However, there are still big issues to address. For example:

  • Most cloud service providers have not yet considered the inefficiency and scale of their own applications, which often include massive advertising and social influencer activities. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter generated $244 billion from advertising over the last year.
  • New computers are typically more energy-efficient, but few users consider the cost of manufacturing them in calculating their overall carbon footprint.
  • New developments in automation, artificial intelligence, data encryption and quantum computing will massively increase the use of computing. This, in turn, will hugely increase demands for electricity from data centres.

It seems likely that IT spending will increase as a proportion of GDP in future. It will probably also become more centralised, as we adopt technology like automated vehicles.

Combining the effects

The combined effect of all this is that data centres have a much bigger role to play in addressing global warming and climate change than their physical space would suggest—and also that they are not necessarily doing as much as they could to help.

I believe cloud service providers and other large data centre owners need to think about reducing the number of superfluous applications. They also need to improve software efficiency, and not just focus on the rack density of their hardware. Finally, they must also include the carbon costs of manufacturing their hardware in calculating their carbon footprints. Like electricity-generating companies themselves, we may well be approaching a time when the most advanced data centres will make more profit by selling less computing.

This analysis has been produced in partnership with ITCandor

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