27 June 2022

The black hole of carbon emissions: the hidden impact of cloud computing

So much of the way we conduct our work is centred around cloud computing, as more and more businesses move from on-premises hosting (or ‘on-prem’) to increasingly cloud-based infrastructures.

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By Bridget Tiller
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For businesses, the cloud seems to be everywhere

So much of the way we conduct our work is centred around cloud computing, as more and more businesses move from on-premises hosting (or ‘on-prem’) to increasingly cloud-based infrastructures.

The changeover is staggering: 86% of businesses say their cloud usage is moderate to heavy, and in 2018, 3.6 billion people were accessing a range of cloud-related services. That’s up from only 2.4 billion just five years earlier.

What impact is it having on the climate?

For many, cloud setups offer a vast array of benefits: it’s scalable, cheaper upfront, and can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection. On top of all this, you move your power-hungry servers off-site, which reduces not just your energy bills, but also your carbon footprint, right?

Wrong. While the carbon impact might feel out-of-sight and out-of-mind, cloud computing really isn’t zero carbon.

Your business’ data is still hosted somewhere – just off-prem, in a data centre somewhere around the world. This data centre uses energy just the way your on-prem servers would have – to power the servers, to keep them cool, and to maintain all the necessary infrastructure.

This takes a vast amount of energy: estimates vary on exactly how much, but the footprint of ICT in general is likely to be as high as 3.9% of global electricity consumption, with much of this attributed to the cloud. This issue is only set to grow: by 2025, 49% of the world’s stored data will be in the public cloud.

Now, don’t get me wrong;

Moving from on-prem to off-prem can result in a reduced environmental footprint

  • Off-prem infrastructure can be more efficient as it’s consolidated into a few larger servers.
  • You might also be able to choose where in the world your data is physically hosted, so you can choose a region that powers their data centres more renewably.

But nevertheless, it’s also crucial that we recognise that the cloud isn’t zero carbon: it has an impact and it has a footprint.

With the energy use from online activities tucked away in a remote data centre halfway across the world, many businesses aren’t taking responsibility for its measurement or reduction.

The 4% black hole in emissions reporting

This is made possible in part by regulations surrounding carbon footprint measurement.

Moving servers off-prem means they shift from Scope 1 or 2 emissions (direct emissions from a company’s activities) to being technically Scope 3 (emissions from a company’s supply chain). Scope 3 is often hard to account for, and, up to recently, hasn’t been as regulated, so even businesses that take their carbon measurement really seriously can often miss them out.

That’s really bad news.

Scope 3 emissions can form an overwhelmingly large proportion of a business’ carbon emissions - even up to 75% in some industries!

That’s why regulations are increasingly moving towards a place where Scope 3 emissions are essential to carbon reporting from businesses.

You CAN measure these emissions

Over the last year at Greenpixie, we’ve developed Cloud Net Zero, which helps businesses to measure their cloud emissions, as well as make steps towards understanding and ultimately reducing them.

The move from on-prem to off-prem computing services has meant significant emissions have been forgotten - it’s time we remember them.