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Shifting computing to cloud servers can achieve vast corporate emissions cuts, study finds

With their cutting-edge servers and cooling systems, cloud-based data centres are highly energy-efficient, offering companies a promising avenue for emissions reductions.

Data centre, cloud computing
A data centre. In recent years, the data centre industry’s skyrocketing energy demand and emissions have moved into the limelight. Image: Amber CaseCC BY-NC 2.0

A new study published today shows that moving computing workloads from data centres on firms’ premises to centralised cloud servers can substantially reduce corporate carbon emissions across the Asia Pacific, offering a tangible solution to shrink the sector’s large environmental footprint.

The analysis, conducted by American technology research company 451 Research and commissioned by Amazon Web Services (AWS), a subsidiary of Amazon that provides cloud computing platforms, finds that computing in the cloud is on average five times more energy-efficient than in-house servers.

This translates into potential emissions cuts of 78 per cent across 515 organisations surveyed with annual revenues between US$10 million and US$1 billion in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and Japan, says the report.

Clouds deliver computing services over the Internet. They offer firms flexible resources because they only pay for services used. This not only makes cloud computing cheaper than running one’s own servers, but it also makes tapping into new computing resources easier when business needs change.

Cloud-based data centres save energy because they boast the most up-to-date servers that are designed for power optimisation, run with high utilisation rates, and use advanced power and cooling systems that harness real-time sensor data to adapt to changing weather conditions.

The report states that powering cloud servers with renewable energy could bring down emissions by another 15 per cent, bringing total potential emissions savings to an average of 93 per cent across the firms surveyed. It notes, however, that procuring clean electricity remains challenging across the region amid regulatory barriers and high costs.

“As digital infrastructure is not always the core business of enterprises, data centre energy costs and carbon footprint may not be top priorities,” said Kelly Morgan, research director for data centre infrastructure and services at 451 Research. “Hyperscale cloud providers like AWS are driven to make all parts of their infrastructure work in sync to increase efficiency—from design to operations—in order to lower costs and provide IT services at scale.”

“Customers in Asia Pacific who move compute workloads to the AWS Cloud can significantly reduce their carbon footprint, benefiting from the net effect of all our sustainability efforts,” said Ken Haig, AWS’s head of energy policy for Asia Pacific and Japan.

The world’s insatiable demand for data has caused the tech industry’s energy demand and carbon emissions to skyrocket. In 2017, data centres around the world together gobbled up 416 terawatt-hours of electricity, more than eight times the power consumed in Singapore. Google alone uses about 12.4 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, while Facebook’s electricity usage reached 5.1 terawatt-hours in 2019.

Collectively, data centres are responsible for around 2 per cent of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, bringing the sector on par with aviation. By 2040, this figure is forecast to surge to 14 per cent—the same as the United States’ contribution to global emissions currently.

Even as major tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple scramble to power their operations with clean electricity or buy renewable energy certificates to offset their emissions, governments have begun passing more stringent energy consumption and emissions standards, piling pressure on data centre firms to rein in environmental impacts.

The European Union, for instance, wants to mandate data centres to become more energy-efficient and carbon-neutral by 2030, while Singapore, where data facilities account for 7 per cent of total energy usage, imposed a moratorium on new data centres in 2019 over climate concerns. The city-state’s data centre operators are looking at neighbouring Batam to offshore cloud computing power.

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