Cloud infrastructure could be key to meeting climate goals

Adopting cloud-first policies, enabling corporate renewable energy investment, and greater public-private collaboration are needed for the path to net-zero carbon.

aws amazon data centre
On average, cloud infrastructure is five times more efficient than on-premise data centres in APAC. Image: AWS Amazon

As the Covid-19 pandemic spurs the acceleration of digitisation and demand for data, governments and companies across Asia Pacific are actively looking for ways to fast track both their digital transformation and decarbonisation efforts. 

Cloud computing—storing and accessing data and programmes using a third-party provider—is the key unifying enabler for accelerating innovation on both fronts on the path to net zero carbon, said sustainability experts from Environment Resource Management, Singapore Economic Development Board and Intel at a webinar titled Meeting sustainability and climate goals with the cloud, sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS) Institute.

“We urge policymakers to prioritise cloud-first policies and drive cloud migrations. This is what we consider the ultimate low-hanging fruit,” said Quint Simon, head of public policy, Asia Pacific and Japan at AWS. 

On average, cloud infrastructure is five times more efficient than on-premise data centres in APAC, such that moving information technology (IT) workloads to the cloud would result in around 78 per cent reduction in energy use and associated carbon emissions, found a study by 451 Research.

The study found that the significant difference in carbon output can be attributed to the fact that cloud data centres achieve far higher resource utilisation and greater energy efficiency than the typical on-premises data center, which translates into considerably less energy used to perform the same unit of work.

When compared to on-premises data centers, the paper revealed that cloud data centers offer further potential energy savings of more than 11 per cent due to their highly energy efficient power and cooling systems.

While policymakers are worried about the power consumed by big central data centres—some have even put moratoriums on building new data centres—having a central cloud data centre that is focused on efficiency may end up saving more energy, said experts at the panel. The energy savings come about by shifting IT workloads onto a cloud data centre, and shutting down inefficient enterprise data centres.

“When we think about the IT infrastructure and sustainability, I like to think about it in two dimensions—sustainable IT and then IT for sustainability,” said Chris Wellise, director of sustainability and carbon at AWS. Sustainable IT include cloud technology, which brings great potential for optimisation as we’ve seen in the 451 report, he said. 

“Then how do you apply IT for sustainability? There are some great examples, such as the energy company Vector’s use of IoT, machine learning and big data analytics to facilitate efficient grid management and greater integration of clean energy across places like Australia and New Zealand. There is huge potential to apply sustainability concepts to transform other industries,” Wellise added. 

Enabling corporate renewable energy investment

Significant decarbonisation opportunities are left on the table in markets where cloud providers like AWS are unable to purchase 100 per cent renewable energy, said experts on the panel. 

If APAC organisations were able to move IT workloads to cloud data centers powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, their carbon emissions savings could rise to 93 per cent on average, found the 451 Research study.

But operators of data centres are facing challenges to the supply side energy in the region, said Wellise. Currently, there are no cost advantages for choosing renewable energy, and countries like Singapore or Japan face physical constraints.

“We need to see the development of regulation, which allows for things like virtual power purchase agreements, and other instruments that allow large organisations and consumers of energy to rapidly accelerate and green our energy supply,” said Wellise. 

There should also be more governance around the quality of renewable energy projects, not just quantity of projects, agreed the panellists. 

The experts noted that Australia offers a good model of how open and transparent markets and supportive legal regulatory mechanisms, such as those that enable corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs)are key to unlocking and scaling private investment in renewable energy. 

Collaboration and partnerships

Experts agreed that public-private partnerships (PPP) are crucial to meeting the planet’s sustainability goals due to the complexities of sustainability challenges, which may span across the entire value chain.

But a successful partnership requires finding the right alignment of interests across the different collaborating parties and a clearly articulated joint goal. In addition, commitment from the senior management level ensures that the right operational resources will be invested into the project. 

Currently, there’s no harmonisation around the sustainability terminologies such as carbon neutral, net zero, 100 per cent renewable energy, said Wellise. The first step for governments is to define what these terms mean for the country and standardise that across the board. 

Another area that is missing strong global standards are credible offsets, and governments play a critical role in ensuring that supply exists for companies to achieve their net zero carbon targets.

In this regard, Singapore offers a good example with the launch of Climate Impact X by both financial firms and government. The global voluntary carbon exchange and marketplace aims to overcome the lack of transparency and ineffectiveness of some carbon projects that currently undermine the market. 

Within APAC, there is still great potential for collaboration across countries to accelerate the energy transition, noted experts. The Lao PDR-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore Power Integration Project (LTMS-PIP), an inter-government project to study the feasibility of cross-border power trade from Laos to Singapore, offers a significant step towards the vision of a regional power grid. 

Other points of collaboration include joint contributions to international regulations, standards and certifications to advance low carbon solutions, and joint research and development and testbeds. 

The Asean taxonomy of sustainable finance announced earlier this year is a step forward as it potentially serves as a common language for sustainable finance which may help channel more private capital to accelerate the transition to clean energy, said speakers. 

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