Cloud suppliers and their carbon footprint

As companies are increasingly looking to reduce their carbon footprint, they need to consider the impact of cloud computing on this. So, how are they doing that, and what should companies consider when they are selecting cloud providers? 

Efficiency in data centres 

The first major way in which the tech sector has managed their greenhouse emissions has been through maximising the efficiency of data centres and minimising the amount of energy that they consume.  

  • Hyperscale data centres – the large-scale data centres operated by companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft – have greatly increased the efficiency of data centre operations and enabled the sector to grow greatly while keeping energy consumption broadly flat. 
  • Heating and cooling systems are another source of greater efficiency. A lot of data centres have been located in cool places to make use of ‘free air cooling, simply pumping in outside air to help cool servers naturally. Other data centres use piped warm water to cool down servers 

Renewable energy 

A second major way in which the tech sector has reduced its carbon footprint has been through significant use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Indeed, the tech sector has been one of the biggest investors in the renewable sector. 

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the tech companies make extensive use of Renewable Energy Credits (REWs). Therefore, while they may support the growing use of renewable energy sources across the economy, the tech companies themselves may still be making significant use of non-renewable sources.  

How do tech companies compare? 

Companies increasingly are providing more information about their approach to managing and reducing greenhouse emissions. Xero, for example, announced that it had offset its entire carbon footprint for FY19, and was looking at ways of reducing, not just offsetting it, in future. Intuit announced a ‘50 times by 30’ target, which aims to surpass carbon neutrality by 2030. 

In terms of the large cloud providers, Google and Microsoft are generally rated well by environmental experts. Google’s investment in renewable energy is substantial, for example, and equivalent to taking one million cars off the road. Microsoft also rates highly and their target to become ‘carbon negative’, involving extracting existing carbon from the atmosphere, are ambitious.  

So, next time you’re thinking about selecting a cloud provider or cloud-based software, take a look at any plans and associated metrics that they have published on their carbon footprint, and ask yourself whether they are doing the right things. 

A fuller version of this article is available for Tech Faculty members.

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