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What is my company’s net carbon baseline and how does it change in the Cloud?

Authors: Dave Parkin, Mobina Salahuddin, Josh Cason and Yoni Chitiyat with support from Lauren McBride

There’s no doubt adoption of Cloud Technology has increased at pace in recent years, with businesses reaping benefits from scaling and innovating their operations. At the same time, the topic of sustainability has continued to move up the agenda of most business leaders. So, what impact do data centres have on carbon emissions and how can they be tracked and analysed? Although this article is focused on carbon emissions in the context of IT and the Cloud, the concept of tracking environmental impact, and using it to influence decision-making, holds value across all business functions.

Clearly technology has a significant role to play in achieving climate goals on the road to net zero. There are many factors that contribute to the carbon footprint of an organisation and IT departments have an important role in realising change. Although the exact figure is uncertain, it is estimated that The Information Communications Technology (ICT) ecosystem alone accounts for between 2-3% of global GHG emissions, and there is a risk that accelerated technological progress could cause a significant increase in these figures over the next decade.

Research by the International Energy Agency (IEA), indicates that demand for data and digital services is expected to continue its rapid growth over the coming years, global internet traffic doubled between 2016 and 2019 and is expected to double again by 2022. Furthermore, research conducted by the EU commission estimates that EU data centres consumed 76.8 Terawatt hours of electricity in 2018, and this is expected to increase by 28% by 2030. This growth can be offset in part by moving away from on premise data centres to very efficient large-scale cloud data centres achieving greater output with fewer servers and optimised capacity, which is supported by increased utilisation of renewable energy sources by the major cloud providers.

Many organisations are in the early stages of tracking emissions

Many organisations have set bold targets to become net zero and fully offset emissions. However, many more are still in the early stages of calculating their emissions baselines and understanding the component parts of how IT contributes to the bigger picture. Even though calculating the utility costs for a data centre is relatively simple, what becomes more complicated is understanding the cost to the environment and in turn taking tangible steps to reduce emissions.

A common example is that most organisations have robust approvals processes for new projects that include a form of cost-benefit analysis or business case, but rarely do they include the benefits to the environment, which need to be tracked against the company’s net zero targets. Climate impacts, regulatory pressure, investor requirements and public demands have all accelerated with the urgency to reach net zero, with organisations starting to embed carbon reduction into their long-term strategies and using climate amongst a wider range of criteria as part of the benefits case for organisational change.

Calculating your footprint: Cloud vs On-Premises

To determine on-premise emissions, a basic calculation to develop an indicative view of your data centre(s) emissions could include energy consumption in kilowatts hours (kWh), workloads, applications, and server hardware specifications. The Power Usage Effectiveness multiplier is the metric that indicates the energy efficiency of a data centre, taking into account the associated power used for compute, storage, networking, cooling, lighting, and even the reception areas in the facility. The conversion factor to convert electricity (kWh) to metric tons of carbon (Mt CO2e) is another critical component which is calculated as a function of the fuel sources used to power the grid locally or regionally. This might include fossil fuels or renewable energy, as well as the grid emissions intensity where relevant. By tracking these metrics over time, you can monitor the impact of your Cloud adoption or IT estate consolidation on your emissions.

By leveraging Cloud infrastructure, several business and environmental benefits are obtainable. Cloud native monitoring and optimisation services provide you with real-time insights to identify and remediate inefficient workloads and design highly-available, energy-efficient architectures. Furthermore, many large scale Cloud service providers have made commitments to move towards using 100% renewable energy. Despite this, many organisations struggle to pinpoint the exact emissions associated with powering public Cloud workloads at a given time due to the abstraction of hardware and infrastructure layers. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG) outlines several considerations to estimate and benchmark these emissions to gain a more granular view, some of which are available at the end of this blog.

The role of Cloud providers in enabling transparency

As Cloud deployments continue to rise, leading Cloud service providers will play a crucial role in the future tracking of Cloud and data centre emissions. Increased visibility, transparency and guidance on emission data is required to launch concerted climate action in IT emissions amongst cloud customers. Although this space is still emerging, several initiatives have started to improve public Cloud sustainability.

The Microsoft Azure Sustainability Calculator helps enterprise customers analyse their IT infrastructure emissions. GCP’s new sustainability tool provides customers with a view of renewable energy usage (Carbon Free Energy %) across their Cloud regions, permitting them to make more sustainable hosting decisions. Whilst AWS Data Exchange for sustainability helps Cloud customers achieve their long-term sustainability goals. By leveraging their economies of scale, investment into renewable energy and working with their enterprise customers, the leading Cloud service providers fulfil a significant role in their customers journey towards net zero.

Carbon reporting is only the beginning

Reporting is one of the foundational steps for creating positive change for the environment, but businesses shouldn’t do it in isolation. Whilst environmental reporting is key to providing greater transparency and awareness, it is not a proxy for progress of improved sustainability, as more work is needed to bring the necessary standards and rigour to the process (as is the case within the accounting industry).

International standards such as the GHG protocol and institutions like the Global enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) have a wide range of materials and resources to help organisations better understand their data centre emissions and how these can be reduced.

If you are interested in taking your first steps to understand your data centre environmental footprint – please get in touch with us. We can help you put the foundations in place to track and benchmark your emissions.

Want to find out more about reducing your IT emission in the cloud? Here are some additional metrics to consider:

The GHG protocol report for IT Sector Guidance outlines several considerations you may wish to consider when estimating and benchmarking emissions in the Cloud. These include:

1. Break down virtual resources into functional units categorised by:

a. Quantity of service (e.g number of users, size of storage or quantity of compute capacity provided).

b. Duration of service (e.g runtime of workloads per year, month, day, hour or minute).

c. Quality of service provided (e.g service levels in terms of recovery/availability).

2. Assess energy efficiency levels using additional metrics (where available) such as:

a. Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE) – an energy efficiency metric pertaining to datacentre cooling processes.

b. Renewable Energy Factor (REF) – measuring amount of renewable energy used in the form of electricity in a datacentre

c. Energy Re-Use Factor (ERF) – the ratio of energy being re-used divided by the sum of all energy consumed in the datacentre.

Tune into our latest podcast on Cloud and sustainability! Ben Combes and Adam Gogarty explore the connection between sustainability and Cloud, any opportunities for the future, challenges faced and how businesses are putting in place strategic agendas to combat this.

Cloud Speed podcast series