Clouders' environmental footprint: what strategy?

Written by Wilfried Kirschenmann, on 05 May 2021

The Tech Intelligence series explores various tech topics: cloud computing, cybersecurity, blockchain. Today, discover the strategies to reduce the environmental footprint of cloud computing.

The rise of cloud computing in our economies is undeniable. There is a great diversification of cloud services, a rebound in investments (6.9% average annual growth) which could reach, according to the International Data Corporation, $90.9 billion in 2023. There is a growing demand for multi-cloud (use of different providers) and the establishment of a legal framework such as the GAIA-X project in Europe allowing new players to enter the market. This technology has become a real strategic issue that addresses all sectors of our economies.

The historical advancement of the United States in the field of information technology has allowed its three giants Google (GCP), Microsoft (Azure), and Amazon (AWS) to offer a globally exportable cloud service before the appearance of real competitors. Combined, their market capitalizations reached over $3 trillion in 2020. This valuation gives them a competitive advantage favorable to innovation.

As cloud usage grows within our societies, its environmental impact raises more and more questions. What is the impact of cloud computing's environmental footprint? What are the sources of pollution? And most importantly, what strategies have market leaders in cloud computing put in place?

After examining the carbon footprint of cloud services, we will analyze the environmental strategies of the three leaders using an article by Daniel Oberhaus published on WIRED: "Amazon, Google, Microsoft Here's Who Has the Greenest Cloud".

Data Centers (DCs): the primary contributor to cloud computing's environmental footprint

The role of Data Centers worldwide

To simplify, data centers are infrastructures that gather equipment of an IT system (computers, servers, storage space, etc.). This infrastructure is then used by companies to store, organize, and manage a vast amount of data. Companies thus have access to powerful and virtually unlimited resources. Dematerialized and almost limitless, they allow, for example, to improve research and development.

This hyper-concentration of IT resources has seen an impressive evolution over the past 6 years. Since 2012, we have gone from 500,000 Data Centers to over 8 million, representing a 1500% increase. This growth can be explained by the need to collect more and more data and therefore to store it. Enriching their databases allows many companies to better orient their strategies through a better understanding of their markets and customers. They gain a competitive advantage from this. This is compounded by the intensification of digital exchanges which requires the intervention of Data Centers to store and disseminate information. In 2020, it is estimated that 50% of the data created by all companies in the world is stored in the cloud and therefore in Data Centers.

Data Centers have thus experienced exponential growth in recent years, but what about their environmental impact?

Data Centers responsible for the sharp increase in digital pollution and cloud computing's environmental footprint

The exponential increase in data centers worldwide raises questions about energy consumption and environmental impact. Indeed, DCs are very energy-intensive for several reasons.

On the one hand, their activity is continuous (the internet never sleeps), and on the other hand, their activity requires cooling. Data Centers produce heat and need to be cooled for proper operation. This cooling requires energy (the more the DC is solicited, the more it needs to be cooled). Thus, the US Department of Energy estimates that 2% of global electricity production is used to power Data Centers today. This level could increase by 2030 to reach 10% of global production. This evolution is even more worrying as most data centers are powered by fossil fuels. In 2020, information technologies are responsible for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. A quarter of these emissions come from data centers.

Carbon emissions represent a major component of Data Centers' pollution. However, they are accompanied by another type of pollution.

E-waste: another challenge of Data Centers' development

Comme évoqué plus haut, la pollution des DCs ne se limite pas seulement aux émissions de gaz à effet de serre. The United States of Environnemental Protection Agency a créé un terme pour identifier les deux autres composantes de la pollution des data centers : les E-waste. Ils sont composés à 2% de déchets solides (hardware) qui sont pour la majorité facilement recyclables (plastique, or, cuivre, tout ce qui n’est pas totalement dilué dans le produit final). Mais également à 70% de déchets toxiques issues des activités de refroidissement. Ces derniers nécessitent un traitement particulier car possiblement toxiques (certains liquides de refroidissement sont mélangés à l’eau).

As mentioned above, DCs' pollution is not limited to greenhouse gas emissions. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has coined a term to identify the two other components of data center pollution: E-waste. They consist of 2% solid waste (hardware), the majority of which is easily recyclable (plastic, gold, copper, anything that is not completely diluted in the final product). But also 70% of toxic waste from cooling activities. These require special treatment as they may be toxic (some cooling liquids are mixed with water).

To reduce the impact of Data Centers, one of the highlighted means is the use of renewable energies (solar, wind, or hydraulic). As highlighted by The Berkeley National Laboratory, the location of DCs is also a major factor in regulating carbon emissions. Today, there is an extreme concentration of "hyperscale" Data Centers in the United States. Indeed, if 80% of them were located in a colder region, this would lead to a 25% reduction in the energy used for cooling and thus a reduction in their carbon emissions.

In order to multiply the solutions to carbon emissions, we must consider technological innovations as levers.

Technological evolution, response to environmental challenges?

A study published in Science Magazine provides a different assessment of the environmental impact of Data Centers than that presented in traditional media. According to this study, Data Centers' consumption would be overestimated because it omits a crucial point: technological advancements. According to this study, the correlation between energy levels and Data Centers' activity level is low. To demonstrate this empirically, the authors of the article analyzed consumption and activity levels between 2010 and 2018.

Energy consumption increased by 6% during these two periods (from 194 terawatt-hours to 205 terawatt-hours). However, the activity level increased by 550%. This would prove an improvement in energy efficiency thanks to technological innovations mainly driven by AI. Of course, the study does not in any way question the environmental impact of Data Centers. However, it suggests that ecological transition will not materialize without the major players in information technology.

Ecological transition: what strategy to reduce the environmental footprint of cloud computing?

To judge the coherence and quality of the ecological strategies of our three cloud computing superstars, we have ranked them based on 4 criteria. We find announcements, actions, areas of ambiguity, and the future.

The clouders' announcements

Google has a renewable energy portfolio of 5.5 GW. The Cloud outsider aims to achieve 100% renewable energy used across all its activities. It also aims to reduce its carbon emissions to zero in its Cloud business.

Microsoft has a renewable energy portfolio of 1.9 GW. Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) allow them to finance renewable energy projects to certify their installations. Renewable energies account for 60% of the power supply to its data centers, and should aim for 70% by 2023.

Amazon has a renewable energy portfolio of 1.9 GW. Like its competitors, Amazon aims to reach 100% renewable energy for its data center operations. Taking into account RECs, the company claims to currently use 50% renewable energy across the group. The second objective is to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040.


At Google, three major actions are highlighted:

  • Increase in its renewable energy portfolio by 40%.

  • Improvement of its cooling systems through algorithmic models. These are trained using meteorological data to allow better energy management.

  • The goal is to try to anticipate heatwaves or cold spells. This allows adjusting the temperature of the data centers.

  • Creation of a data center in Finland cooled only by seawater.

In a unique move among tech giants, Microsoft has implemented a carbon tax internally to hold its entities accountable. It has implemented a campaign to purchase and finance renewable energy. On the R&D side, Mr. Gates' company is experimenting with data centers in the deep sea and researching ways to make fuel cell use profitable.

Jeff Bezos' company simply builds wind (3) and solar (6) infrastructure in the United States. Part of the energy produced will subsequently power the data centers and other group activities.

Areas of ambiguity

It can be observed that these three cloud computing leaders provide their services to the oil and gas industry (these are important financial resources).

And tomorrow?

Google's grand plan is to power all its data centers with 100% renewable energy. However, the production of renewables is not continuous unlike internet flow. The Mountain View firm also wants to accelerate the creation of renewable energy production and storage infrastructure.

One of their major projects is to transform their data centers to be able to produce electricity directly on-site. There is thus a dual objective: to produce and store in the same place. This could reduce carbon emissions due to energy transport.

Amazon communicates very little about its environmental strategy. Indeed, it is often criticized for its lack of transparency. Its dominant position (30-32% market share) achieved through quality services could explain this approach.

The clouders are committed to policies to reduce their carbon footprint. However, two distinct types of models can be distinguished. On the one hand, that of Google and Microsoft who want to achieve solutions on their own by investing heavily in R&D, and on the other hand, that of Amazon which uses its substantial cash to finance projects that will be advantageous to it. These choices are specific to the cultures of the three companies which have been built on different models subject to the levels of commitment of their leaders.