By Leslie Robinet, Services Director, MEGA International
The controversy comes up regularly – for some, the cloud is green and for others, it remains a very physical IT asset and therefore contributes to climate change. Each position makes sense because they are both correct. The cloud is not green by nature but can be a source of greener IT practices based on correct use of its storage abilities.
The cloud, a virtual technology with very real impacts
We must face the facts: miracle solutions with only positive outcomes are hard to come by. A positive action can have negative side effects, and even worst, sometimes be totally counterproductive. Unsurprisingly, the cloud is no exception. The cloud’s storage and computing power are virtual (and therefore consumes little material resources) for most users, it is nevertheless made of very real machines and energy-intensive data centers. In 2021, the cloud accounted for 95% of global data center traffic, up from 39% in 2011.
Whether through on-premises or the cloud, using digital tools always impacts the environment. The idea is not to do without digital technology, which has brought great modernity to the world, but it’s essential to be aware of its impact, the first step towards a better use of resources.
The stakes are high: data centers and data transmission networks are responsible for nearly 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent International Energy Agency study and these are not the only impacts. We must consider the analysis of the life cycle of all equipment, water consumption, and the extraction and use of rare earth elements.
As for electricity, data centers and servers could be the source of 10% of digital consumption, depending on their use of energy for cooling. It should be noted that a balance must be found between the extension of the lifespan and the energy efficiency of each piece of equipment, manufacturing being the most resource-intensive phase.
The virtues of shared IT
The benefits of the cloud include its ability to offer consolidation of resources. Datacenters are highly energy-intensive, but if these centers pooled their resources, the environmental impact would be much lower. This pooling increases the potential for improvement for all organizations in terms of IT sustainability, energy and cooling efficiency, hardware performance and durability, and efficiency of cloud-native architectures.
On the user side the benefits of the cloud are numerous. Applications accessible from anywhere reduce workers needing to commute to an office and online meetings reduce long-distance travel by plane. Digital solutions also help maintain social ties, as we witnessed during COVID-19.
Beyond the cloud, from a macro-economic point of view, the World Economic Forum estimated in 2019 that digital technology would make it possible to reduce carbon emissions by up to 15% by 2030 thanks to dedicated solutions in the sectors of energy, manufacturing industry, agriculture, transport, and services.
Invisible and cheap: The risk of a rebound effect with the cloud
For decades in the 20th century, we believed that oil resources would be inexhaustible. We must recognize the major role of this energy source in the exponential development of modern economies, but the repercussions in terms of greenhouse gas emissions are now well known. While some growth forecasts show more than 7% per year for the IT and digital sector, the idea is no longer to reproduce the same pattern.
Since the cloud is often considered to be intrinsically green and eco-friendly, and above all inexpensive, or even free, the risk of a rebound effect (overconsumption with ultimately negative consequences) is an important consideration. Despite the positive effects of IT in general and the cloud, corporate practices need to be established to limit overconsumption and rising emissions. For example, limiting the storage of digital files to the strict minimum and avoiding multiplying the digital copies of the same document are good practices. It’s also an eco-friendly practice to clean up emails and delete messages that don’t need to be saved and avoid sending unnecessary emails.
A true illustration of the rebound effect is digital archiving. Even if it seems greener than paper archiving, digital archiving has resulted in an extension of the retention period of files. In the physical world, organizations must regularly destroy data that has become useless over time, and this practice should transfer to the virtual world as well. Let’s all do our part in limiting the growth rate of data being stored around the world. The cloud seems completely ecofriendly and green, but overuse and misuse of cloud resources have negative effects not just in the IT world, but on our physical world and our planet’s health.
About Leslie Robinet
Leslie Robinet graduated from Virginia Tech with a major in Industrial Systems Engineering. After working for US companies in process optimization with a Lean approach, she moved to France in 2005 and joined MEGA International as a Solution Engineer to oversee clients’ Enterprise Architecture projects. In her current role, Leslie is MEGA’s Professional Services Director and leads the engineering department in Paris. Leslie is one of the founders of the French association Mon Epice’Rit, an eco-friendly grocery shop where volunteers work together to propose locally sourced and organic products to its members.
About MEGA International
MEGA International is a global SaaS software company with offices in 11 countries. The company provides leading software solutions for Enterprise Architecture, Business Process Analysis, Governance, Risk and Compliance and Data Governance to guide organizations in their business transformation initiatives. MEGA created a collaborative SaaS platform, HOPEX, that offers a single repository to help companies collect, visualize, analyze, and communicate information to better plan and adapt to change. With 350 multicultural, dynamic employees, MEGA supports more than 2 000 clients in 52 countries. For more information, visit https://www.mega.com.
 World Economic Forum – Digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%