We’re not talking white fluffy things that hold rain, obviously. We’re referring to the internet. Or rather, the software and services that run on the internet and the data stored in online file hosting services, instead of locally on your computer.
It’s easy to think of the Cloud as some benign, non-tangible mass up in the ether, an environmentally friendly way of storing data according to the cloud migration companies, who promise sustainability and lower carbon footprints.
In reality, the Cloud casts a shadow across our earth.
The Cloud comprises thousands of data processing centres across the world, 456 in the UK alone. Each data centre requires electricity – a lot of it – to keep running. If the centre goes down, the data is rendered irretrievable, until power is restored.
According to one report, the entire data centre industry uses more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. To create this much energy, you would need the annual output of around 34 coal-powered power plants. Globally, 3% of all electricity used in the world goes to data centres – more than we use here in the UK in an entire year. The more information we store in the Cloud, the more power that will be needed to cope with the required capacity.
In 2019, it was estimated that data centres worldwide generated the same volume of carbon emissions as the global airline industry (in terms of fuel consumption). Lancaster University estimates that the Cloud is responsible for between 0.25 and 1.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. And greenhouse gases lead to acid rain.
With more aspects of life and work becoming digitised, data centres are projected to increase in number. It is expected that there will be 29.3 billion devices online by 2030.
Server facilities, once cupboard-sized, are growing in size. The big three cloud vendors (Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure) now build “hyper-scale” warehouses, covering hundreds of thousands of square metres.
Data centres rely on water, to generate electricity and to keep mechanisms cool. A medium-sized data centre will use as much water as three average-sized hospitals. In the financial year 2018, Google used 15.79 billion litres of water, the majority consumed by its global fleet of data centres. Microsoft used 3.5 billion litres in the same period, again mostly through its data centre.
Water availability is a major concern in the context of climate change. In the last 100 years, global water use has increased six-fold and continues to grow by 1% each year. Many areas are already water-poor: the south east is classed as “seriously water stressed”, urban water supplies are under stress to meet population demand and still, our water is being mismanaged, polluted and depleted.
Not every cloud has a silver lining.
Big techs offset their carbon emissions and recycle as much water as they are able, when cooling their data centres. Is it enough?