How IT- and ICT-related emissions can create a blindspot in your net-zero strategy
Cloud-based services are central to nearly every industry and to everyday life. However, the level and nature of cloud computing’s impact on the planet is complex and much debated—leading many organizations to neglect the climate footprint of their internet activities. Here we discuss some of the challenges in the field and describe why it is essential to account for the resource consumption of internet services.
As more people and devices connect to the internet, web traffic has skyrocketed. Internet protocol (IP) traffic more than tripled in 2020 compared to 2016, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) analysis based on data by Cisco. Internet of Things devices and remote work have only continued to grow and accelerate amid the COVID-19 pandemic, further compounding IP traffic trends. Despite this rapid growth, internet use is often overlooked in environmental accounting. While the environmental impacts of the internet may not be immediately obvious, Internet and Communication Technologies (ICT) consume significant resources, which can counter their potential to maximize resource use. (→ Learn more in Sphera’s blog: How Green Is the Internet?) An example illustrating the resource intensity of cloud computing is the electricity use of data networks and data centers. In 2020, data networks and data centers consumed between 460 and 590 TWh of electricity, equal to 2.1 and 2.4% of the global demand. Against the backdrop of rapidly increasing IP traffic, it is apparent that all stakeholders (e.g., users, internet service providers and data center operators) must limit internet-related emissions in the following decades.
The management of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from internet services must start with a holistic and well-grounded accounting approach. However, accounting for such emissions is complex as the resource intensity depends on multiple variable aspects.
One is the location of the user (client) and the server. Location determines the path of data packets through the network. A user in a New York office may browse a website hosted in the Netherlands, requiring the use of a high number of network nodes (hop count) and underseas cables to connect the host and the user. However, on a typical working day, the user may also browse a website hosted elsewhere, which then possibly has a different hop count. From an organizational perspective, such complexity is even more increased if multiple users scattered around the world should be taken into account.
Another factor increasing the complexity is the specific equipment deployed at the mentioned network nodes. Depending on the technical development of the network, it can have variations in its energy intensity. Consequently, the equipment specific characteristics need to be considered, which increases the efforts.
Location and equipment are not the only factors influencing the accounting approach. Different applications also have different properties. In comparison, to a regular download of a file, services such as videoconferencing create a significant upstream bitstream. Subsequently, both directions—from server-to-client (downstream) and client-to-server (upstream)—need to be analyzed. This is just an additional example from a long list of aspects that influence resource intensity and illustrate the complexity of accounting emissions from internet services.
Many leading environmental accounting guidelines like the GHG Protocol do not account for the emissions from internet-based activities. Subsequently, a high number of companies may have a blindspot within their corporate GHG inventories. This lack of knowledge is critical for several reasons. The missing numbers prevent organizations from assessing the relevance of the emissions from internet activities to their corporate emissions baseline, threatening the success of net-zero strategies. Furthermore, the integration of the resource intensity of internet activities is equally important on the product level. We work and live with more devices, which communicate via the internet. Gone unchecked, these devices host hidden environmental burdens that must be considered if an organization wants to offset the emissions and claim its product as climate neutral.
Cloud-based services are an increasingly prominent facet of everyday life. However, we still face critical challenges in accounting for their environmental impacts, preventing companies from scoping and managing them. As a result, corporate or product-related strategies can have a significant emissions blindspot. Sphera’s sustainability experts can help organizations learn more about the impacts of their internet activities, improve their accounting approach and find new ways for possible reductions.