What is the Environmental Impact of Cloud Computing?

cloud computing

Introduction

Some of the benefits of cloud computing have long been established. For businesses it allows for greater collaboration as everyone is able to access the same information from anywhere – as long as they have access to the internet and a workstation.

It’s also been found to be more flexible than traditional means of storing data and communicating across a company.

But what environmental impact is cloud computing having? What are the benefits it holds for companies looking to hit net-zero? Are there any environmental drawbacks?

Let’s have a look at what impact cloud computing is having on the environment.

Is it more carbon efficient?

Studies suggest that the cloud has the potential to play a significant role in reducing the use of energy across the globe. Microsoft and WSP conducted a study to determine how it reduces computing’s carbon footprint. It found that the cloud is up to 93% more energy-efficient and can result in a 98% reduction in carbon emissions than your traditional data centers.

Typically sites will produce a significant amount of greenhouse gases. Data centers produce these emissions through the production of raw materials for equipment, transporting the equipment and disposing of the equipment once it becomes obsolete. Google found that between 2010 and 2018 the amount of computing done in these data centers grew by 550%, yet the amount of energy consumed by data centers only grew by six percent during that time. As of 2020, the search engine giant found that its data center is twice as energy efficient as a typical enterprise data center.

What’s unfortunate at the moment is that, other than for CSR purposes, corporations have little incentive to use clean or green energy. However, through working with AI technologies such as natural language processing (NLP), companies can identify ways to reduce their carbon footprint as well as cut costs.

The effectiveness of remote working

Stay at home orders introduced to slow the spread of COVID-19 led to a huge increase in remote working. In the UK, industries such as Information and Communications saw 81% of employees work remotely in April 2021. At first these seemed to present a real headache for firms. However, what the pandemic has proven is that there’s tremendous value in cloud computing. Working from home has been made very possible because the same information can be readily available anywhere, it isn’t just restricted to the office.

What this has meant is that, for some companies, working from home could very well be here to stay – at least in a hybrid form. The prospect of paying less for office space is very attractive to business owners, so why rush to get everyone back in? It’s even more attractive if productivity remains the same.

So what’s the environmental impact of this? For starters, an average petrol car will produce the equivalent of around 180g of CO2 for every kilometre travelled. With more people working from home, there will be less distance travelled in cars by people commuting. So remote working isn’t just more cost-effective for businesses, it also plays a role in reducing carbon emissions – all made easier by cloud computing.

Dematerialisation

Dematerialisation is the process of substituting physical products with digital counterparts within the IT sector, although the concept does expand into other industries. The idea behind it is that, by having less reliance on physical resources, society will reap green and sustainable benefits.

The future of enterprises by telecommunications company Ericsson suggests companies levelling up through the cloud are able to effectively run a global cloud-based business. It found that almost 7 in 10 businesses have already reached halfway or beyond in their dematerialisation journey. Speculation arose that dematerialised enterprises capable of adapting to evolving customer needs will be the norm by 2030.

The report also found that almost three quarters of businesses expect their electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. This switch is a key factor in the journey towards becoming a net-zero enterprise. It also goes on to find that 8 in 10 decision-makers expect to make significant energy savings through the move towards cloud solutions.

Other benefits of dematerialisation

Of course, eliminating the need for physical products like hardware and other equipment, greatly reduces the amount of waste produced as a result of ultimately disposing of these products.

New cloud storage solutions like Google Drive reduce the need for paper, and even encourages businesses to go paperless. Enterprises also don’t need a physical space to store documents because it’s all safely stored in the cloud. Paperless companies also don’t need to dispose of documents that would otherwise have a negative environmental impact.

Summary

Cloud computing holds many benefits that go beyond the technological and financial. Its impact on the environment presents many opportunities for a net zero future.

It is already established as greatly reducing the amount of waste produced, now cut through the process of dematerialisation.

It looks like for many companies, remote working is here to stay – at least in a hybrid form. This will dramatically reduce emissions produced by employees commuting to work everyday, although for some sectors this isn’t possible.

Research has shown that cloud computing can lead to greater carbon efficiency, and long may that continue.

About the Author:

Oliver Griffiths has a passion for film, video games and technology. He can be found at Tillison Consulting running a number of clients’ digital marketing campaigns across all sectors and platforms.

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