AI and Sustainability: Can cloud based technology ever be really green?

Cloud computing continues to transform business, our personal lives and the world around us.  However, the exponential increase in the use of cloud based computing raises questions about how sustainable this is and its overall environmental impact.  There is no doubting that cloud based computing (which is commonly used for machine learning, deep learning and AI) helps companies create resource efficiencies for example: optimising driving routes; optimising energy usage and reducing material wastage to name just a few.  Using cloud computing also enables companies to scale computing power up and down as needed, only using what they require at any given time rather than maintaining their own hardware.   

However, it is also easy to forget that the using the cloud also means using data centres and computing infrastructure – all of which require energy to power them (estimates range between 3-8% of total worldwide electricity consumption by 2030) and critical minerals to build them.  Aligned with this are changes across the globe in connectivity and usage of the internet, for example energy-intensive technologies such as cryptocurrency through to increasing use of content sharing/video streaming.   

So what can cloud computing technology providers do to help protect the environment and move towards to being sustainable?  Current solutions include: 

  • Transitioning data centres to renewable energy sources like solar and wind or in locations where geothermal resources are available (e.g Iceland( 
  • Improving the  energy efficiency of data centre hardware and facility operations using solutions such as advanced cooling systems  
  • Where appropriate the use of carbon off setting 
  • Designing systems which seek to minimise the “rebound effect” such that increased connectivity does not results in increased energy usage.  

With careful implementation, AI and cloud computing can play a pivotal role in building a sustainable future, when combined with using the technology responsibly.  Undoubtedly, progress will come from continued innovation, transparency, and committing to power the internet sustainably. 

By Dr Sophie Carr

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