As demand for corporate environmental accountability increases, there are steps IT administrators can take to reduce cloud-related emissions.

Justin Keeble, Managing Director of Global Sustainability, Google Cloud

November 7, 2022

4 Min Read
green earth energy concept
SABIDA via Alamy Stock

One reason for optimism on combating climate change is the elevated awareness, including amongst IT leaders, that the time for action is now.

In a 2021 Google-commissioned study by IDG based on a global survey of more than 2,000 IT decision-makers, 90% of respondents said that sustainability is a priority for their IT department, and 75% considered sustainability a “must-have” or “major consideration” when evaluating cloud providers. However, the survey also showed that action lags intent when it comes to taking climate action as an IT leader. Only 67% of respondents had environmental sustainability targets in place.

One reason for the lag may be that industries, governments and corporations are challenged to make sustainability decisions without the right data or insights. Fortunately, we’re entering an era where we have the data and insights available to inform IT leaders and to make their sustainability decisions as seamless as possible, especially with respect to cloud usage.

Here are four sustainability-minded decisions IT leaders can take when it comes to their cloud usage:

1. Baseline where you’re starting from

It used to be the case that all IT leaders had to go on when selecting a “green” cloud provider were their environmental claims.

These days, the goalposts have shifted significantly on what IT leaders can expect from their cloud providers. Multiple providers are now able to provide accurate accounting of the emissions associated with cloud usage. While you’re already likely to have reduced your department’s carbon footprint by moving to the cloud from on-prem infrastructure, understanding your overall emissions remains a necessary starting point. After all, as the adage goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

2. Run workloads when and where clean energy is most plentiful

Certain compute jobs, like on-demand video streaming, need to be available to users instantly. However, other jobs, like video processing, are a little less urgent.

It’s possible to schedule less urgent compute jobs for times of day when clean energy is most plentiful on the grid where your cloud provider operates. While a lot of grids have plentiful renewable energy resources, there are times of the day when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow. You can use a resource like Electricity Maps to figure out where these gaps might be on your grid. Generally, it can be a good practice to ensure non-essential compute jobs aren’t taking place during carbon-intensive hours of the day.

You might also consider shifting where your compute takes place. Certain grids are cleaner than others and, depending on what’s important to your department, you can opt to run certain jobs on cleaner grids. And if your team doesn’t have bandwidth to figure this out job by job, there are tools on the market available to help you weigh your priorities against each other (cost, latency to end users, and carbon intensity), before selecting where to run your compute.

3. Identify and delete idle projects

You probably don’t leave the lights on when you leave a room, so why keep a compute job active if it’s idle? It seems obvious but disabling idle compute jobs is less common than you think.

When we rolled out a tool at Google Cloud to help developers identify and remove unattended projects, we found over 600,000 gross kgCO2e in seemingly idle projects that could be cleaned up or reclaimed — which would have a similar impact to planting almost 10,000 trees. Making time to identify idle projects or finding a cloud provider that can help you do so is bound to make an impact on your IT department’s overall carbon emissions.

4. Look beyond your own organization’s footprint

In addition to your own organization’s cloud usage, working with your company’s ecosystem of partners, suppliers and customers to assess their clean cloud practices may be a useful way of decarbonizing Scope 3 emissions.

While Scope 1 and 2 emissions comprise your direct emissions and those associated with the generation of acquired or purchased energy respectively, Scope 3 emissions include all of the indirect emissions in your company’s value chain. This type of energy accounting is increasingly being scrutinized, particularly for companies setting net zero targets. Checking in on your partners, suppliers and customers’ cloud practices is a step in the right direction for companies looking to minimize Scope 3 emissions.

Beyond these steps, IT departments should look their cloud providers as technology partners that can help them pinpoint and solve for unique sustainability challenges their organizations face as a whole. Businesses across industries are at an existential crossroads, and the ones that will survive are those that will be able to ride the wave of digital and sustainable transformation. IT departments have a massive role to play here and should be proactive in identifying new directions for the business to move.

Of all the small sustainability decisions an IT department can take, the most important one is taking the first step. And that first step can be as simple as having a conversation with your cloud provider to see what assistance they can offer you.

About the Author(s)

Justin Keeble

Managing Director of Global Sustainability, Google Cloud

Justin Keeble is the Managing Director of Global Sustainability for Google Cloud. He has 25 years of experience working with companies on sustainability as a drive of innovation and value creation. He joined Google from Accenture where he ran their global sustainability services business. He lives in South Oxfordshire in the UK with his wife and three daughters. Justin is also a non-executive of the UK National Parks Partnership.

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