Discussion around climate tech dominated a sustainability conference I attended earlier this month in London. There, tech vendors to environmental lobbyists honed in on decarbonisation goals, an ambition which tails the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Google EMEA president Matt Brittin emphasised the company’s AI sustainability play, while GM for Europe at IBM Ana Paula Assis branded the technology as key in green IT.

But at the heart of this sustainable computing debate is the cloud, which allows organisations to minimise electricity consumption on-site by migrating workloads to virtual servers.

Siemens smart infrastructure CEO, Matthias Rebellius, said it is working on scaling up cloud software to “manage the high complexity of decentralised energy generation”, while Google Cloud has pledged its facilities will be entirely carbon-free by 2030.

As organisations continue to address the environmental impact of their operations, research company Gartner predicted carbon emissions generated by hyperscalers will be a determining factor in a consumer’s purchase decisions.

Sustainability shift 
Roy Illsley, chief analyst at Omdia, told Mobile World Live (MWL) conversations on cloud sustainability are getting more nuanced.

Before the UN launched a treaty to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2030, cloud adoption in enterprises was driven by the need to eliminate costs associated with running workloads on-premises.

“Sustainability was not the main driver for cloud, it was agility. It was the need to sort of spin resources up and do things differently, so sustainability was a little bit of a byproduct of using the cloud, which providers then started to realise and so marketed it as a value attractor,” Illsley explained.

He added there is a lot more to green cloud than energy efficiency, and business players “need to look at computing resources as a whole, holistically”, including how providers build and operate data centres. The recyclability of hardware also factors in the wider sustainability aspect.

In 2022, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported the ICT sector accounted for more than two per cent of the global energy demand, on par with the emissions generated by the aviation industry.

“As cloud becomes more accessible, we consume more and the more impact it’s having on the carbon emission. So that’s one obvious impact if cloud continues to grow,” Illsley noted, highlighting more attention should be paid to the carbon-hungry construction of data centres.

Cloud sovereignty 
With US giants dominating the cloud economy, and coupled with the country’s 2018 Cloud Act which allows providers to access user databases, Europe and China also issued legislation demanding tighter protection around data collected outside their borders.

This tension around data authority brought forth what is now termed sovereign cloud, which ensures all data stays on sovereign soil and prevents foreign access under all circumstances, technology publication CIO noted.

Illsley argued this can potentially challenge green ambitions the cloud industry promised: “[Sovereign cloud] means you are almost certainly going to need a local data centre in the country. . . so that’s another dynamic that is coming into play.”

He continued: “The cloud [adoption] may be carbon beneficial, but if a country like Oman says, ‘well, I want data centres being built in Oman,’ then it’s going to cost carbon to build it whereas they could just connect it to an existing data centre and use it. So, I think there’s a lot of politics going on in the world that is coming to the fore and that’s going to impact cloud as well”, he added.

Emerging markets in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are also likely to wrestle with challenges in building large-scale data centres.

“Using millions of gallons of water to cool the data centre is not environmentally friendly and sustainable, but that’s where new technologies like liquid immersive cooling come into play,” Illsley added, noting the process would be more complex and expensive than building facilities in the Arctic the way cloud giants have been doing.

And when it comes to sovereign clouds initiated by local governments, they may lack resources to form cutting-edge climate tech innovations.

Climate leadership 
Also speaking to MWL, principal analyst for cloud and infrastructure at CCS Insight James Sanders said “greater adoption of a set of sustainable energy sources is needed everywhere, and not just for data centres”.

He highlighted the massive scale that data centres require, which can be an opportunity for providers to “prove out innovations in sustainable energy”, adding small modular reactors (SMR) which produce low-carbon electricity can be an alternative.

Indeed, tech giants have made some lofty environmental commitments: Microsoft claimed its operations will be carbon negative in 2030; AWS hopes to hit net-zero targets by 2040 and Google promises 24/7 carbon-free operations.

But critics argue cloud giants need to do more in tackling hidden emissions indirectly produced across the entire value chain, which Deloitte noted could account for more than 70 per cent of an organisation’s footprint.

“Increasing transparency in environmental reporting is an ongoing requirement of public cloud providers, balanced with the increasing need of their clients to provide more detailed accounting of emissions,” Sanders added.

Bloomberg recently reported emissions linked to cloud computing are not being properly accounted for. Its source, Adam Turner, head of digital sustainability at the UK government, said hyperscalers were often shy about indirect carbon emissions when the authority asked for their data.

Longer term, initiatives like carbon calculators enabling users to track emissions, carbon-intelligent programming or research investments around renewable energy should be more prevalent.

This could go a long way to convincing both consumers and authorities that green cloud is more than corporate greenwashing.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.