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April 30, 2024

The Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry

Considering you’re reading this blog right now thanks to the Cloud, the headline above shouldn’t be that surprising. But despite the ubiquity of the internet and, by extension, The Cloud, it still feels like a surprising figure. Is the internet, that most non-tangible of things, one of the causes of global warming? 

Yes, very much so. The power needed to sustain The Cloud - and by extension, your late-night doom scrolling, web surfing and Netflix streaming - is immense. 

Let's dothe maths

The airline industry currently accounts for 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, while The Cloud accounts for somewhere between 2.5% to 3.7%. The key difference here is that not everyone flies - while virtually everyone uses The Cloud at some point, making this a truly global issue. 

And as we increasingly use supercomputers to do our work and homework, that number will only increase in the next few years. 

The amount of energy needed to run servers and data centres worldwide 24/7 is forecast to double in the next two years to 1,000TWh. To put that in context, that’s how much solar power energy the entire world created in 2021

What drives these emissions?

It boils down to the trifecta of electricity consumption, water usage for cooling and the lifecycle of equipment. Plus, it’s been estimated that each gigabyte of internet use carries a water footprint of approximately 0.74 litres, highlighting the resource-intensive nature of your bout of doom-scrolling. 

The Cloud then is everywhere and is increasingly a drain on our resources and a key contributor to carbon emissions. 

So, where do we go from here? 

One way to counteract the growing AI threat is to use AI to solve the AI threat - put our network of supercomputers that are chewing through huge amounts of energy to good use by getting them to find ways to make them more sustainable. Another is to increase transparency and measurement so energy use is built into our daily conversations.

A more long-term approach is to examine how and where data is stored. Montreal has several data centres that run on hydroelectricity, while Google and Facebook both have large data centres in Sweden and Finland, helping cut energy costs and power usage. And there’s Google’s 4M practise, which they say can reduce Cloud energy use by 100x and emissions by 1000x. 

While Wordsworth might have wandered lonely as a Cloud, there’s no chance you’d be lonely with today’s Cloud in 2024. The Cloud is everything that is online - and as such, it’s very resource-intensive. The Cloud may be intangible, but its effects on our planet are very real. And getting more real with every Google search, bang-average Netflix series and TikTok video. 

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