In 2018, ex-AWS employee Paul Johnston and I jointly published a report on the state of energy use in the cloud. How could we as consumers make ethical and future-proof choices about hosting?
This is not an academic issue. Data centres may not be at the front of our minds in the war on climate change, but just because we don’t think about them doesn’t mean they aren’t fundamental.
Data centres play a major role in humanity’s future. As Microsoft President Brad Smith points out, they will be: ‘among the largest users of electrical power on the planet’. We have reached the point that data centres are outstripping the aviation industry as carbon producers and within five years they may be on a par with all of transport.
That’s crazy! Isn’t tech supposed to be clean?
It is. But inadvertently, tech is doing harm—even when it has the money, the means, and the ability to avoid it. This, in our view, is unethical.
The aviation industry gets a lot of bad press but at least it’s trying hard to reduce carbon emissions. Only carbon-based jet fuel has the energy density to support mass aviation at the moment (although people are working on it). In tech, we don’t have that excuse. We need electricity to run servers, not jet fuel, and electricity has a lot of generation options.
In our 2018 report, we demanded 100% renewable server hosting by 2024. In the 18 months since then we’ve seen solid progress from the cloud vendors:
If you run your own data centres or use a co-lo facility, you still have some control — you can buy or request that the electricity for the facility comes from a green provider who will guarantee it is offset.
Having said this, the age of the hyperscale cloud provider is here. 53% of all servers are projected as being located in hyperscale cloud data centres by 2021. The decisions of AWS, Google, and Microsoft are therefore of paramount importance.
This is not only about being good.
The world is changing.
Renewable power is now often cheaper than the dirty, hydrocarbon-based alternatives and that gap is likely to widen as solar and wind become commoditised.
Personally, I suspect more legislation will come in against hydrocarbon fuels, and public protests against oil and gas will continue to rise. Securing alternative sources of power is a risk-management exercise as much as an ethical one.
Below, Container Solutions, Paul, and I have produced a set of green guidelines to help you make climate-change compatible choices for your cloud hosting.
Our recommendations are:
2018 rating: B+
2020 rating: A-
Sustainable servers?: 100% with offsets today, with commitment to ‘real time matching’ (i.e. no carbon release)
2018 rating: B
2020 rating: A-
Sustainable servers?: 100% with offsets and energy certificates today, with commitment to be carbon negative by 2030
2018 rating: C
2020 rating: C-
Sustainable servers?: 100% with offsets in four public regions today, elsewhere unknown with estimates in the less than 30-50% range. New commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030 and carbon zero (no carbon release) by 2040. The rating here would be higher but for the continuing lack of transparency on energy usage.
2018 rating: D-
2020 rating: D-
Sustainable servers?: Unknown but China a major market, and not known what energy is purchased.