When we think of climate change and the existential threat of global warming, our minds often conjure images of dirty factories pumping out carbon dioxide or fuel-guzzling cars sitting idle with their engines rumbling. We think of ice sheets tumbling into the ocean and sea levels rising, and we know that grand, sweeping changes are needed. However, while it’s always good to have one eye on the elephant in the room, it’s equally important to step back and look at the picture as a whole.
Changing Climate Perceptions
Have you ever thought about your own impact on the environment when settling down to stream something on Netflix? Or how your Zoom meeting tomorrow might contribute to the climate emergency? A recent study found that, despite a record drop in global emissions in 2020 due to the pandemic, the switch to remote working and at-home entertainment still presented a significant environmental risk. One hour of streaming or video conferencing, for instance, can emit 150 – 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, so perhaps you should think twice about switching on your camera during your next virtual meeting. That’s because everything you do online is facilitated by a data center somewhere in the world. That data center will need to be powered, cooled and maintained in order to operate effectively. The majority of countries reported around a 20% rise in internet traffic from the beginning of the pandemic, meaning those data centers have to work even harder.
Now, let’s apply this to the world of business. Do organizations consider their cloud activity or data center usage when assessing their environmental footprint? If the latest figures are anything to go by, simply turning down the thermostat by a few degrees may not be enough. Today, the technology business sector consumes roughly 7% of the world’s energy. By 2025, Greenpeace estimates that figure could skyrocket to more than 20%, mainly due to innovations in cloud computing designed to drive efficiency, automation and, of course, facilitate remote working.
Data center workloads increased by 500% between 2010 and 2020 as more of the working world moved online. In the U.S. alone, data centers use roughly 660 billion liters of water per year to generate electricity and cool their facilities. In recent years, greenhouse gas emissions from data centers have eclipsed that of the entire global airline industry. That means your company’s use of technology could contribute more to global warming than a transatlantic flight. It’s clear that our perceptions around climate change and our relationship to the environment need to broaden considerably.
Turning the Tide
Fortunately, it seems the tide is turning. There are initiatives popping up all around the world to try and counter the impact our data centers are having on the environment. The European Union, for instance, has launched the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework – which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, with all sectors doing their part. While governments have traditionally focussed on the more obvious issues, such as the burning of fossil fuels by cars, it seems their scope is now broadening in the knowledge that every action – large or small – helps. If we can solve the problem of polluting data centers now, before our dependence on them grows exponentially, we can prevent the next big ‘elephant in the room’ from emerging. Google knows this, and vowed to power all of its data centers using carbon-free energy by 2030. Other companies, like Equinix, are even further along with their green initiatives to protect and power a more sustainable digital world. In 2019, over 90% of Equinix’s global data center energy consumption was covered by renewable energy sources, pushing it one step closer to its long-term goal of using 100% clean and renewable energy.
Computing has always had an impact on the environment, but it was so negligible that it barely registered. Those impacts are still negligible when looked at in isolation, but when multiplied by billions, they quickly add up. By changing the way we think about cloud computing and accepting it as a net contributor to the climate crisis, we can start to steer our future to safer shores. Making sure you work with data centers who share your passion for a green future is a great first step.