What is the environmental impact of Cloud computing?

By Fay Capstick

Cloud computing is now firmly established as a way to run systems remotely from data centres, but what is the environmental impact of this change? This week we will look at what Cloud computing is, what impact it might be having on the environment and how this can be improved.

What is Cloud computing?

Cloud computing has nothing to do with the weather. It simply means that services and data are accessed over the internet. This can include documents and files, servers, email, calendars, analytics, entertainment, software and networking.

Why use Cloud computing?

Having your data and services accessed via the Cloud means that, should anything happen to your local device (fire, theft etc), your data is safe. The Cloud also makes it easy to seamlessly switch between accessing data on different devices. It is probable that you are using Cloud services more than you realise.

What is the impact on the environment?

The data and services that you access via the Cloud will be held in data centres around the world. The best known Cloud is Amazon Web Services (AWS). These data centres will be huge. They will also take mammoth amounts of energy to run the banks of servers and to keep the machines cool. The companies that operate these Clouds will have an interest in keeping their operating costs as low as possible for the benefit of their users and their shareholders.

Greenpeace have estimated that within 3 years, the technology sector will consume 20% of the world’s total electricity (https://earth.org/environmental-impact-of-cloud-computing/). This is a massive jump and shows how much power our ever increasing demand for technology is consuming.

Further, we are now making jumps with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These technologies need huge amounts of computing power and this is coming via Cloud computing data centres. As this technology further progresses, the environmental impact will increase exponentially (https://geographical.co.uk/nature/energy/item/3876-the-carbon-footprint-of-ai-and-cloud-computing).

Can Cloud computing have a positive environmental impact?

The advent of Cloud computing has enabled many people to work from home. A trend that was accelerated by Covid. Working from home saves on the emissions caused by commuting via public transport and car.

By using Cloud services business are not running their own servers. This decreases the amount of energy that a business will consume. A data centre will likely be running a more efficient server set up than an individual business. It also saves the environmental footprint of each business buying their own servers (which have to be produced and then disposed of at the end of their useful lives). Reducing the amount of physical products purchased reduces e-waste.

How can we reduce the impact?

One way to reduce the impact is for service providers to commit to running the most energy efficient server farms possible. Providers need to use systems to recover and reuse energy where possible. Google report that they have been able to process more data at their centres as demand increases without an equal rise in energy consumption (https://earth.org/environmental-impact-of-cloud-computing/).

Data centres generate a lot of heat from the computers. This is exacerbated when data centres are located in hotter countries. An obvious solution is to locate data centres in cooler countries (or if that isn’t possible, the coolest part of the individual country) to reduce their electricity consumption.

As technology improves older machines and battery back ups will become obsolete or unwanted. This also creates an environmental impact. Therefore it is important that this electronic waste is either reused or recycled in the most efficient way.

Amazon is trying to offset the impact of its data centres by investing in renewable energy, such as wind farms.


The shift to Cloud computing is a trend that is here to stay and that it will have an overall positive impact on the environment. Companies will have a vested interest in making sure their data centres are as efficient as possible, as this will save them money. This benefits everyone.

Final thoughts

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