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Cloud Sustainability: The Case for Carbon Accounting in IT

Tobias Flood
30 Apr 2021

Studies indicate that cloud-based operations could have significant carbon benefits on a global scale. Cloud providers are allocating resources to improve their energy consumption and educating the public of their actions and metrices. For instance, Capgemini has developed a sustainability calculator (Client Carbon Impact Calculator) and associated methodology to provide transparency to customers on their carbon emissions. Tools like these are a first step into acquiring knowledge of a company’s carbon footprint and taking actions thereafter. But there’s more.

Now is the age of sustainability. The idea has become a reality among corporations and individuals alike in modern society. It started out as a global responsibility of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) engagements. But it is fully incorporated as a natural part of both personal and corporate life, and most individuals are invested in the theme in one way or another. Although personal involvement is important, companies need to be in the forefront of making vital changes to their businesses positively impacting our climate footprint.

Enterprise onus to deliver responsible innovation

Whether the motivation for a greener company or a healthy sustainability balance sheet is financial or reputational might be irrelevant if the outcome is positive in terms of ESG metrices. Considerable work is being done already and many corporations are in the process of changing business direction and incorporating zero-emission goals as a CSR strategy. Some might obtain greater efficiency and results than other, however, there are some departments within all businesses that are eligible for a sustainability review.

Cloud computing can possibly eliminate 1 billion metric ton of CO2 emission from 2021 to 2024!

It is easy pointing fingers at what is already known to be causing harmful emissions, e.g. cars, oil production, manufacturing, air travel and more. Without dismissing the obvious, there is also huge potential for all other corporations when looking inward at the carbon footprint of their own operations. A somewhat overlooked but emerging area of business that is in dire need of carbon footprint reduction are our IT departments. All eyes are gradually fixing on CIOs as targets for delivering ‘green IT’, promising net zero GHG emissions to the world.

Enabling ‘green IT’ is generally achieved by moving resources to the cloud, as cloud computing allows for greater efficiency in aggregating compute resources. According to a recent report by International Data Center (IDC), cloud computing can possibly eliminate 1 billion metric ton of CO2 emission from 2021 to 2024. This is equivalent to the total emission of 218 million cars over an entire year!

Every single bit travelling across the Internet is stored and power is required to maintain the storage. While some might believe that the cloud is another unseen force existing outside of our comprehension, it is the actual physical storage in servers and large data centers around the world. Maintaining operations of these data centers requires vast amounts of energy in general power supply and server cooling. Although the total contribution of GHG emissions from such data centers is not earth shattering, the same contribution within a decade is expected grow at a faster pace due to the exponential increase in the amount of data consumed. This brings us face to face to a couple of questions:

  • How should companies and CIO’s approach the conundrum of ‘green IT’?
  • Does cloud computing immediately have a positive effect on our climate footprint compared to that of on-premise systems?

Sustainable data centers: Balancing and optimizing the relationship between power and efficiency

Evolving into zero-emission IT departments is a daunting task requiring capital and a technical education that might not be available through first- or second-party competency. Moving resources to the cloud in a lift and shift approach does not reduce emissions by default, unless the old on-premise system was a low-budget incinerator. There are numerous variables affecting the total emission caused by such systems, but the prime benefit lies in balancing and optimizing the relationship between power and efficiency. The top cloud providers have regular upgrades to their hardware, ensuring that they can efficiently manage power capacity, optimize cooling, leverage more power-efficient servers, and increase server utilization rates. This can be summarized as more sustainable data centers than those existing earlier in company basements, of course with the occasional exception. If a company does not perform regular upgrades to their IT hardware, the efficiency will drop causing excessive emissions through power usage. Furthermore, as cloud providers handle far greater volume of data than a single company, the usage and consumption of cloud servers are more efficient through the optimization and scalability of resources.

Evaluate your CO2 emissions upon migration to cloud

Moving to the cloud then might add some immediate benefits in terms of efficiency, on the other hand, there is one key element which greatly impacts the equation and moves it towards an emission neutral equilibrium; CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour, or the origin of the power. If a data center, cloud or non-cloud, has all its energy supplied from a coal combustion process, the sustainability impact goes down the drain. Replacing a clean energy on-premise data center with a coal combustor in the cloud is incognizant decision making and bound to happen if IT leaders are not paying attention. Surely, such situations will not occur if CO2 emissions are evaluated upon migration, but unfortunately this is rarely the case. Thus far, system migrations have not been performed on a sustainability basis alone, nor should it. The costs and complexity of moving to the cloud stretches outside the scope of sustainability, but we have entered an age where these challenges should be addressed and awareness should be established when performing a move to cloud computing.

Capgemini’s Client Carbon Impact Calculator shows our clients the carbon emission from their services

The top three cloud providers today (Microsoft, Amazon and Google) have all embarked on journeys towards sustainable data centers and carbon neutrality. As organizations use these cloud providers’ data centers without having to worry about their source of energy, the responsibility for the carbon reduction shifts to the providers. The CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour from energy supply in the geographical location of the data centers impacts both the carbon footprint of the region and the sustainability balance sheet of the companies. Some data centers are thus integrating renewables in their electricity mix to tackle their carbon footprint.

Cloud providers are all allocating resources to improve their energy consumption and enlightening the public of their actions and metrices. For instance, Microsoft has launched a sustainability calculator allowing customers to gain insight into the carbon emission of their services. Similarly, Capgemini has developed a calculator (Client Carbon Impact Calculator) and associated methodology to provide transparency for clients. Tools like these are a first step into acquiring knowledge of a company’s carbon footprint and taking actions thereafter. However, corporations cannot simply transfer the responsibility of sustainability to the suppliers of cloud services. Geographical location of storage and services can be chosen by IT departments, but then again also restricted by GDPR cross-border transfer regulations causing undesirable outcomes with respect to sustainability. In such cases, topics like code efficiency, backup policies, storage capacity and compute resources required become a responsibility of the company.

Awareness is the beginning

Balancing the potential costs in both financial, operational, environmental, and even reputational aspects might seem like an overkill at first, but it has become the reality for CIOs and IT leaders. Enabling cloud computing for companies has never been more complex and challenging as sustainability only adds to its complexity. Although sustainability measured from a cloud computing perspective only accounts for a small part of the ESG engagements, IT departments are present in most companies entailing similar challenges irrespective of industry. Transforming these departments into delivering green solutions will for the foreseeable future require deeper investigation and comprehension of relevant knowledge to ensure success. There are currently more questions than answers, more challenges than solutions. Luckily, there is more awareness than ignorance. Capgemini embraces this challenge in unity with clients as commitment to save the planet is our collective responsibility.


Tobias Flood

Managing Solution Architect Capgemini Norway

Tobias is helping clients reach their digital potential and vision by creating data-driven businesses operating in the cloud. As part of Capgemini’s Architecture department, he has a primary focus on developing agile architecture that will cope with the rapid growth and expansion of cloud solutions and applications.

Do you want to know more about Cloud Sustainability or Data Platforms in Azure to find out what it can do for your company? Contact Tobias here.