Climate Tech

‘The cloud is not a cloud’: The carbon footprint of digital technologies is vast

The tech sector is still determining how to measure emissions, which may be larger than aviation.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Hearing about greenhouse-gas emissions might evoke images of clouds billowing out of smokestacks or spurting from tailpipes, but the digital cloud has a role too.

Because many of the goods and services tech companies provide seem to exist only on our screens, it can be hard to connect them back to the environmental impacts of things like the hardware they run on and the data centers that store them.

“The modern factory really is the cloud,” Rory Brown, head of sustainability at UK-based startup Greenpixie, told Emerging Tech Brew. “And the cloud is not a cloud. It’s a series of massive concrete buildings connected by wires around the world, sometimes plugged directly into old power stations.”

Efforts to more accurately measure greenhouse-gas emissions from the infrastructure and devices that enable modern computing have found that they account for about 2%–4% of the global total—a bigger carbon footprint than the aviation sector.

And some researchers expect these tech emissions to increase further, as the global economy continues to digitize and advanced AI and machine learning demand more computational power. Computing power demands are now doubling approximately every two months, compared with every 24 months prior to 2012, according to researchers.

“Especially with so many companies rightly thinking that if you move as much online as possible, you’re minimizing your emissions,” Brown said. “It’s true, of course, but it doesn’t mean that it has no impact.”

Software startups like Greenpixie and Supercritical aim to help tech companies measure and reduce their digital carbon emissions, which aren’t covered as neatly by existing standards, according to execs from each firm.

“Because tech is pretty new, our sources of emissions are new,” Michelle You, CEO of Supercritical, told us. “We’re all figuring it out together.”

Not your mother’s scope 3

When the Greenhouse Gas Protocol—considered the gold standard for climate-impact reporting—was developed in the 1990s, it was with businesses in mind that were very different from today’s tech companies.

The framework breaks emissions down into three scopes. Scope 1 accounts for greenhouse-gas emissions that come directly from a company’s own operations, such as pollution from a manufacturing plant. Scope 2 encompasses the indirect emissions originating from the sources of electricity, heating, or cooling that a company buys.

Scope 3 emissions get more complicated, since they are produced as a result of an organization's operations, but are not controlled by the company. Scope 3 is often the largest source of emissions and can include everything from transporting goods to, nowadays, the footprint of data centers that power cloud computing.

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“It’s just frustrating to me that it’s considered just everything else, and in the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, you kind of measure what you want to measure there,” You said. “Whereas for a tech company, 90% is going to be in scope 3.”

Greenpixie’s platform focuses on only digital emissions, most of which come from cloud services, Brown said. Cloud computing is among the top five sources of scope 3 emissions for Supercritical’s customers, but the carbon footprint of employees working from home is actually the largest, You said. Along with the energy used to heat or cool employees’ homes, hardware like laptops and phones and online advertising are also significant contributors for tech companies.

Business travel, food and drinks, pension investments in fossil-fuel companies, and consultants typically make up the rest of scope 3, she said.

How to reduce

For many tech companies, shrinking their carbon footprints depends largely on their suppliers decarbonizing, You said.

Giant cloud service providers like Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, and Google Cloud—which together account for ~64% of the market, per Synergy Research Group—are adding tools to give customers more transparency about data-center emissions, but these measurements are still new and high-level, Brown and You said.

Plus, cloud providers are faced with reducing their own emissions even as their businesses grow.

Data centers accounted for about 1% of global electricity demand in 2020, but could make up as much as 15%–30% of demand in some countries by 2030, according to researchers.

The biggest cloud companies have long-term plans to run their data centers entirely on renewable energy. For example, Google, which aims to reach that goal by 2030, has been working with wind and solar companies early to deploy renewable energy at its data-center sites as well as signing on to power purchase agreements that help fund clean-energy projects.

Carbon-dioxide removal, something tech companies like Stripe, Shopify, and Microsoft have embraced, is an important part of the long-term strategy for the tech industry to reach net zero, You said. Supercritical also enables clients to purchase what it considers high-quality carbon-removal credits at a lower price by aggregating a mix of carbon-removal methods.

“I truly believe that the most impactful thing tech companies can do is to be early buyers of these expensive carbon-removal technologies to help them scale,” she said.

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