Data Storage and Measuring Cloud Computing Emissions

In this blog post, we delve into two primary questions: Is opting for cloud storage more environmentally friendly than utilizing internal data servers, and how can one assess the carbon footprint of using the major cloud storage providers?

When it comes to the environmental impact of storing data, the answer isn’t black and white. For individual users with hard drive storage, it’s generally more eco-friendly to use the storage built into your device, as it avoids the need to power and cool additional devices. Businesses, however, often require more extensive storage solutions. Here, they face three main options:

1. Internal, On-premise Data Centres – The traditional, and increasingly rare option, and often less energy-efficient.

2. Colocation Data Centres: Where customers rent servers in an off-site location – an intermediate option.

3. Hyperscale Data Centres (Cloud Data Centres): These are the most energy-efficient, optimizing machine use, employing advanced cooling technologies, and frequently integrating on-site renewable energy.

Supporting this assertion is a study titled ‘The Environmental Footprint of Data Centers in the United States’ (Siddik et al, 2021), which indicates that hyperscale cloud data centres are superior in delivering more computing workloads with lower water and carbon intensity per workload.

How can we assess the carbon impact of our cloud storage use?

Moving to the second question: how can we assess the carbon impact of our cloud storage use? The good news is that big three – Amazon Web Service (AWS), Microsoft, and Google Cloud – offer tools for this very purpose:

– AWS: Customer Carbon Footprint Tool

– Microsoft (Azure): Emissions Impact Dashboard

– Google Cloud

But what do these tools cover?

Ideally, they would take a comprehensive approach including all emissions (Scope 1, 2, and 3), and with separate reporting of  market-based and location-based emissions for Scope 2. It would also be beneficial to understand onsite renewable energy production at the data centres.

Here’s how each service stacks up in terms of emission scopes:

Microsoft’s tool is the most comprehensive, covering all scopes and offering both market-based and location-based options for Scope 2 emissions. Their sustainability efforts are well-documented, with detailed research and updates readily available on their website. They’ve pledged to be carbon negative by 2030 and aim to offset all historical emissions by 2050.

Google Cloud’s tool omits several categories in its emissions reporting, making it less comprehensive than Microsoft’s offering. The excluded categories are:

  • Electricity Loss: Emissions from electricity lost during transmission and distribution.
  • Fuel Extraction and Transportation: The life cycle emissions from fuel extraction, transportation, and the infrastructure used in generating grid electricity.
  • Fugitive HVAC Emissions: Emissions from HVAC system coolants that escape into the atmosphere.
  • Small Equipment Emissions: Emissions from minor equipment used by internet service providers’ partners.
  • External Networking Equipment: Emissions from Google’s networking equipment located outside of data centres.
  • End-of-Life Emissions: Downstream emissions from the disposal and decommissioning of data centre equipment and buildings.

Although less detailed compared to Microsoft’s tool, Google Cloud’s tool does account for some Scope 3 emissions. Google has set targets to achieve net-zero emissions across all operations and its value chain by 2030. This involves reducing the total of Scope 1, 2 (market-based), and 3 absolute emissions by 50% from their 2019 baseline before 2030. Google plans to invest in both nature-based and technology-based carbon removal solutions to offset their remaining emissions.

The Amazon Web Services tool accounts for Scope 1 emissions and market-based Scope 2 emissions but does not cover Scope 3. As a corporation, Amazon has made a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and, as of their 2022 report, 90% of their operations were powered by renewable energy. 

In conclusion, the decision to opt for cloud storage versus internal servers carries significant environmental implications. For individual users, leveraging built-in storage is generally more eco-friendly, while businesses with larger data needs might find cloud storage, particularly through hyperscale data centres, a more sustainable option. These centres, renowned for their efficiency and renewable energy use, offer a compelling argument because of their reduced environmental impact.

And, thanks to the new tools available, it’s now possible to quantify the emissions associated with the use of cloud computing.  However, the tools provided by AWS, Microsoft, and Google Cloud each offer varying degrees of insight into emissions, with Microsoft’s Emissions Impact Dashboard leading in comprehensiveness. It’s essential for users, especially corporate entities, to dive into these tools to obtain a detailed view of their emissions across all scopes. Despite their differences, each tool provides valuable information that can guide users in making more informed and environmentally conscious decisions.

EU legislation to combat greenwashing

The European Parliament has taken a key step forward in the fight against greenwashing with the adoption of the “Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition Directive.” Although the directive still requires Council approval before publication in the Official Journal, it was agreed in the European Parliament last week with 593 votes in favour, 21 against and 14 abstentions, hopefully marking a new era in consumer protection and environmental marketing.

Key Features of the Directive:

  1. Generic environmental claims and other deceptive product information will now be prohibited. The new rules target clearer and more trustworthy product labelling, specifically banning vague claims like “environmentally friendly” or “eco” without substantial proof.
  2. The prohibition of claims regarding neutral, reduced, or positive environmental impact solely based on emissions offsetting schemes. This change is crucial in ensuring that companies can’t just offset emissions but need to prove actual sustainable practices.
  3. Only sustainability labels based on approved certification schemes or established by public authorities will be permitted.
  4. The directive also aims to shift focus towards the durability of goods, mandating more visible guarantee information and a new label for goods with extended guarantee periods. This transparency will empower consumers to make better decisions based on the realistic lifespan of products.

This crackdown on misleading terms is a welcome change, ensuring consumers are not duped by false advertising. While these regulations are promising, we hope they don’t make it overly challenging for genuinely eco-friendly products to market their benefits. It’s crucial that this doesn’t lead to ‘greenhushing’ – where companies shy away from promoting their sustainable practices due to fear of breaking rules.

We welcome the emphasis this places on direct reductions in emissions and hope that it is the first step towards the abolition of the concept of offsetting altogether. Whilst businesses must continue to invest in high quality carbon sequestration projects, the idea that these can somehow compensate for emissions produced by business activity undermines the change we need to see.

The EU Council’s approval is the next step for this legislation. Once enacted, member states will have two years to incorporate these rules into national law. Alongside this, the EU Commission has proposed a “Directive on Green Claims,” to further protect consumers and ensure companies substantiate their environmental claims.