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How to ensure cloud and net zero ambitions align

If approached correctly, cloud operations can support organisations towards their sustainability goals
Wind Power Generation

Everyone needs to play their part in reducing carbon emissions if the world is to have any chance of meeting IPCC targets. That said, it is businesses, not individuals, that have the most control over the planet’s sustainability efforts. Just 100 companies have been responsible for around 70% of all global emissions since 1988, and regulatory pressures to adopt greener processes are only likely to increase.

One way of improving a corporate carbon footprint is through digital transformation. As Johan Hanekom, principal for sustainability and innovation at Amazon Web Services (AWS), says: “Moving to the cloud can help companies curb their environmental impact by reducing energy consumption, promoting renewable energy, reducing travel by enabling remote work and promoting paperless operations.”

By and large, those changes are great for the green economy: they mean fewer trees being cut down, fewer cars on the road and more efficient work practices. However, going green isn’t black and white, and businesses have to modernise in a responsible way. A digital transformation isn’t enough. Businesses need to aspire for a sustainable digital transformation.

Moving to the cloud can help companies curb their environmental impact by reducing energy consumption, promoting renewable energy, reducing travel by enabling remote work and promoting paperless operations

Part of a successful sustainable digital transformation lies in taking responsibility for current and future emissions. This is something that requires a joint effort between organisations and suppliers. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) takes responsibility for the sustainability of its infrastructure, while also providing organisations with tools to help them take responsibility for their own sustainability efforts.

AWS offers a carbon footprint tracker which helps customers evaluate emission trends as their use of the cloud evolves. Businesses can use this to test the impact of their digital assets, such as assessing unruly data sets and needlessly large files. Armed with this knowledge, they can take positive steps to optimise resources within the cloud and only use the computing capacity they really need. The tracker also estimates the carbon emissions businesses have avoided by using cloud services rather than an on-premise data centre.

And how are the cloud providers ensuring they meet their end of the bargain? AWS “has taken steps to reduce its environmental impact. It has already reached 85% renewable energy across its businesses, and is implementing energy-efficient technologies and reducing waste,” says Hanekom.

Multiple studies by 451 Research show that AWS’s infrastructure is 3.6 times more energy efficient than the median of US enterprise data centres surveyed and up to five times more energy efficient than the average in Europe. Research by the same company also found that AWS can lower customers’ workload carbon footprints by nearly 80% compared to surveyed enterprise data centres.

“We have also committed to achieving 100% renewable energy usage for its global infrastructure by 2025 [five years ahead of its original commitment] and being water positive by 2030,” says Hanekom. Some of those sustainable steps include novel data centre designs, new cooling techniques and advanced modelling methods. With access to cutting-edge technology, including custom-built servers and innovative chip design, large providers such as AWS can help organisations of all sizes become far more efficient than they could on their own.

Many aspects of cloud technology are set to become even more sustainable in the coming years. Progress will come in the form of greater energy efficiency in data centres, resource optimisation within the cloud and the advent of green computing and green coding initiatives to implement more efficient computing processes. But underlying and motivating all these technical choices, there also has to be a deeper, more substantial shift in mindset. Service providers must “design around first principles for the circular economy for all the components used in cloud technology,” says Hanekom. That way a sustainable digital transformation can become the norm, not just a nice-to-have.

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