Report: Cloud Computing GHG Emissions To Triple by 2020, iPad and Similar Devices Are Big Culprits

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Photo via Al Pavangkanan via Flickr CC

A new report from Greenpeace shows cloud computing GHG emissions are set to triple by 2020. With this year dubbed as the "Year of the Cloud" thanks to the exponential growth of cloud computing devices like e-Readers and of course the launch of the Apple iPad, Greenpeace's report is a sobering reminder that our use of the cloud is not without a price in emissions. Cloud computing means data centers, and data centers have so far been relatively slow to transition to more efficient methods of operation, despite the constant flow of new ideas on how to make them ultra efficient, including where to place them, how to run the equipment, and how to keep the equipment cool with as little energy as possible. Greenpeaace also points out that as more and more people latch on to devices like the iPad or Kindle that rely on data stored in the cloud, demand for data centers will skyrocket.

The hubbub around Facebook using coal-fired power plants for their new data center is a case in point. With millions of users accessing Facebook every hour, and the massive amount of energy needed to run all those servers to keep the users happy, the use of coal as the source of power is a big deal. Greenpeace's report shows that the IT sector's continued reliance on coal fired power as it grows will mean a big rise in GHG emissions.

From Greenpeace:

In "Make IT Green" Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change" Greenpeace builds on previous industry research to show that cloud-based computing, which allows devices like the iPad to access online services like social networks and video streaming, has potentially a much larger carbon footprint than previously estimated.

The report finds that at current growth rates, data centers and telecommunication networks, the two key components of the cloud, will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatts hours of electricity in 2020, more than triple their current consumption and over half the current electricity consumption of the United States -- or more than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil -- combined.

Greenpeace points out through its report that it is up to the IT industry to take initiative and switch to renewable energy wherever possible, becoming advocates for increased solar, wind and geothermal power plants.

Casey Harrell, Greenpeace International campaigner, states, "IT companies like Microsoft, Google, and IBM are now in powerful positions at the local, national, and international levels to influence policies that will allow them to grow responsibly in a way that will decouple their economic growth from rising greenhouse gas emissions."

Of course, while the IT industry seems to be a culprit for increased GHGs, it's actually the very industry that can radically cut our total GHGs. We rely on the IT industry for services like telecommuting which reduces emissions from airlines as people fly to meetings less, or digital versions of documents so that we use fewer trees for books, newspapers, printed work documents and so forth. So by the same token that a growing demand for cloud computing means higher GHGs, it could also spell relief for the environment if the power for the cloud computing comes from renewable resources and is used in the most efficient ways possible. Greenpeace notes that the IT industry could mean a reduction of GHG emissions of 15% by 2020, if utilized properly in industry, buildings, transport and power sectors.

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