Insights into the carbon footprint of cloud and data centers

In Europe, while 75% of IT activity takes place in data centers, total electricity consumption in 2020 is estimated at 81 TWh, or 2.5% of the continent’s total consumption.

This energy expenditure is the main cause of CO2 emissions from data centers. As more and more organizations move their applications and services to the cloud, public or private, and as overall IT activity increases, it would be easy to assume that the power consumption of data centers can only grow, leading to a proportional increase in CO2 emissions. However, the reality is more complicated. Various factors are likely to lead to a stabilization and even a reduction in the carbon footprint of data centers in Europe. A coordinated and unified approach of European Union members on the subject can lead to great results.

Europe has developed renewable energies

First, under the impetus of various national and continental policies, the share of renewable energies in the energy mix of many countries is rising sharply while the use of coal-fired power stations, the most carbon-intensive mode of production, decreases. . For equivalent production, the amount of CO2 emitted by national power production networks is reduced and therefore, indirectly, the carbon footprint of data centers decreases.

Although total electricity consumption in Europe increases, it is expected that equivalent net CO2 emissions should decrease proportionally in the coming years. The UK is forecasting a 43% decline over the next two decades. Ireland projects are 64%, Spain 60%and Germany 56%.

If the growth of IT activity in Europe is maintained, it could represent a total of 115 TWh by 2040. However, even in this scenario, taking into account the growth in the share of renewable energies, CO2 emissions will be reduced by 19 %.

Virtualization is constantly advancing

The use of virtualization technologies makes it possible to maintain a particular level of computing activity while focusing and integrating it into less hardware, which in turn reduces the carbon footprint of this activity. Although it is not necessary in this view that they were invented, they are now a powerful vector for reducing the power consumption of data centers.

As these technologies advance, data centers and therefore the cloud services they deliver become more energy efficient. By moving their IT services to modern clouds working with the latest virtualization technologies, organizations are ultimately reducing their carbon footprint.

Recent expectations have established that the intensity of data center activity should increase by 250% by 2040. In this scenario, if advances in virtualization technologies are consistent with those observed in previous years, and the sector continues to consolidate services and increase the “density” of data centers, relative carbon emissions could drop by 19% despite increasing activity.

By 2040, if the rate of infrastructure virtualization continues to progress at the same pace, emissions associated with IT activity in Europe could represent between 2% and 5% of total emissions from electricity production. This figure would compare to 12% of total emissions assumed to be “zero progress” in virtualization, which equates to 54 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2040.

Data center operators have stronger incentives

By gradually shifting at least 14% of IT activity in Europe from countries where electricity generation is still carbon-intensive (such as Poland, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria) to countries where more green electricity generation (like Norway, Sweden and Switzerland), we can count on. to obtain a further reduction of 11% of the cumulative emissions associated with the consumption of data centers, by 2040. The total consumption activity of data centers in Europe is high enough for it to be sufficient for the countries that is where the penetration of renewable energies is still low, to develop strategies in this area.

Other factors influence the geographical location of datacenters and in particular data security, the search for low latency for the services they deliver or simple logistical aspects. However, their location is quite flexible and sometimes simply choosing an area where there is excessive production of renewable energy can have an advantage for renewable energies (by guaranteeing their profitability) but as well also in terms of carbon emissions from the data center.

This growth could happen naturally, as data center operators are increasingly incentivized to search in low-emission areas due to rising carbon taxes and falling fuel prices.

A real European Union on the subject

These incentives are sometimes bent by a very diverse set of regulatory structures, taxes and tax exemptions in Europe. For example, in the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, the Netherlands and France, data centers are classified as “energy-intensive” industries, allowing them to benefit from reduced taxes and charges under the minimum tax. EU energy.

This can translate into up to 73% lower energy costs. To the extent that regulatory or financial incentives are inconsistent with the environmental impact, the optimal solution for operators is not always in favor of the environment.

The pan-European approach to incentives for reducing carbon emissions seems important. Measures to promote the location of data centers in more energy-efficient locations and the use of technologies to manage data center energy consumption can only be effective and successful if done in Europe.

The policy of greening public procurement, which the EU plans to implement soon under the “Greening ICT” initiative, will help point the way. In many countries, regulations for cloud services already include requirements for cost control, flexibility and security; Increasing sustainability and carbon emissions requirements could help drive greater use of carbon emissions management as a key driver of digital transformation and hybrid cloud adoption.

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