Reducing Digital Carbon Footprints of Digital Technologies in the Cloud
If you are unsure of what a digital carbon footprint is, read this article first.
Cloud helps extend personal computer lifetime use.
How much carbon is in the cloud?
“There is growing concern that remaining energy efficiency improvements might be outpaced by rising demand for digital services” –
IPCC Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, 6th Assessment
Second, the operational energy use of digital technologies accounts for just 20% of the total life-time carbon footprint of the technology assets The manufacture, distribution and end of life disposal of IT equipment can add up to be much greater than the lifetime energy usage, typically four times greater.
That means that if 20% of a data centre’s operational energy accounts for 1% of the global energy use, the embodied and upfront carbon of the technology they use could be up to four times greater: 4% today and 32% by 2030. Therefore, we must be mindful about the emissions generated by our use of the cloud, and not treat it as “fire and forget” or “out of sight, out of mind”.
Where does all the cloud carbon come from?
Data processing and generation
To help us think about this, consider how hot our computers can get when we use them. Sometimes they can reach uncomfortable temperatures when seemingly doing nothing, even worse when doing high-power activities such as video calls. Although the efficiency of computers, and their ancillary components continues to improve, a great deal of the power they consume is still turned into a by-product, heat.
The data centres that power the cloud and the networks needed to connect it all together are the same. As they do work to create, process and transfer data, they consume energy, of which a great deal is turned into heat. To avoid damage, this heat must be removed through cooling which, in turn, consumes even more energy.
The efficiency of a data centre’s energy use is known as Power Use Efficiency (PUE). This is determined by dividing the total amount of energy consumed (including cooling, lighting etc) by the amount of energy used for computing. The closer to zero the PUE, the better.
In some of the most efficient hyperscale data centres this number drops to 1.1, meaning that the amount of energy used to cool is one tenth of that used to power the computing equipment. In most, though, this number rises to 1.6, meaning an additional 60% of the compute related energy is needed to cool.
With this in mind, our use of cloud technologies to process, manage and create new data has an energy overhead that is greater than the amount of energy required to do the work.
Therefore, any energy we waste by doingneedless workin the cloud creates additional need forneedlesscooling, wasting even more energy, resulting in even moreneedless carbon emissions.
So, what is needless work?
Cloud technologies are often very easy to set up and activate, and when they’re running they keep running in the background without much in the way of a reminder. That means we can often simply not realise they are running, especially if we’re not using them – this is needless work. Redundant automated processes that send documents and files from one place to another without any real business benefit, duplicated backup files and unnecessary large email attachments are all other examples of needless work.
Examples of this could be applications that keep on running in the cloud even when they aren’t needed. Such as cloud collaboration software, research applications, applications used to run reports when the firm is closed down for holiday periods.
It could also be remote desktop applications for prior-employees or those on vacation, project management software instances for projects that have been delivered, or automated data capture and backup solutions that are no longer required. The individual energy, and therefore carbon savings, for each of these could be comparatively small, but they are incrementally cumulative and significant.
Plus, since most cloud applications and technology platforms are billed on a usage basis, eliminating needless work helps achieve both financial and carbon savings. Other types of needless work include redundant email attachments, unnecessary video calls and bloated website pages – which leads us nicely on to the carbon cost of data transmission…
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation and an unfathomable pace. Along with it, adoption and use of video calling also accelerated as we found new ways to conduct our lives at distance. Now, as we move back to a new hybrid normality, the use of video calls persists, and so does its carbon impact.
Calculating the exact carbon footprint of a video call is an incredibly complex, real-time task. However, this report summarises that at a high-level, a 2-person video call can generate between 25 and 100 times more data per minute than the same call on audio only.
This number multiplies by the number of participants on the call. A 100-person company making just two one-hour Teams video calls a week could create more than nine tonnes of CO2e emissions over the course of a year. Compared to just over one-third of a tonne from audio-only Teams calls of the same duration.
Video calls can add a great deal of value over audio only, and are often a much better alternative to physical travel, but neither of these statements are true all the time.
A couple of quick tips to reduce the carbon footprint of digital meetings are: First, switch from high-definition (HD) video, to standard definition (SD) – this can save almost half of the CO2e associated with the call. Second, turn off the video when it no longer adds value to the call, even if just for a few minutes can have a big effect.
Although the most prolific, video calls are not the only source of digital carbon. Needlessly recreating and re-issuing digital documents, bills, or signature requests all add up, too. The point is to drive awareness on what data actually needs to be shared, and taking care in being correct the first time to avoid re-work.
Eliminating the storage of data that will never be used cuts the storage carbon, but also the carbon associated with the communication and processing of that data. The impact runs further, too.
Frequently clearing out unrequired or stale data frees up space for other applications, requiring the cloud provider to allocate less new hardware, thereby reducing the amount of carbon embodied in the hardware itself as well as the carbon associated to the use of this hardware.
Cloud technologies deliver so much value and are so pervasive that we can’t imagine a future without them. However, there are habitual and behavioural changes we must make to address and reduce our digital carbon footprints.
One simple, but important step is to become more aware of and reduce our digitalwaste. This applies across both physical products and the services we consume that are built on top of them, especially cloud technologies.
Cloud applications have become heavily depended upon across many legal domains, yet the cloud’s ease of use can lead to unconscious use, wasted energy and unnecessary carbon emissions.
Raising awareness of the environmental impact of wasted cloud utilisation, whether that’s applications, storage, or data transfer, can help reduce both the cumulative carbon emissions of cloud technologies, and their financial cost.
Actions and recommendations
Digital carbon footprints span across all three of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s emission scopes – Scope 1, 2 and 3.
While Scope 1 and 2 are often more easily addressed, Scope 3 involves multiple third party entities such as banking, end users and entire supply chains and can often account for 80-90% of a company’s total footprint.
Cloud technologies contribute mostly to Scope 3.
Our collective relationship with the cloud continues to deepen and intensify, while our regulatory and moral obligation to report, reduce and remove our carbon emissions is rapidly stiffening.
At Jalubro we have expert services and products available to help you determine, manage and reduce your digital carbon footprints across all three scopes.
Visit jalubro.com/netzeroservices/ to discover how we can be your partners in this evolving journey to Net Zero.