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April 3, 2010

Cloud Computing Hauled Over The Coals By Greenpeace

With the growth of developing economies and the vast amounts of energy needed for cloud computing, publicity-conscious Greenpeace has criticised the ICT industry’s data centers, where utility power comes primarily from coal.
By some quirk of fate and timing and imagination, cloud computing, based on an infrastructure whereby data is delivered to devices directly from the internet in real time, has all of a sudden been impacted by the shadowy voice of Greenpeace.

A study, “SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age”, highlights the significant and rapidly-growing footprint of the ICT industry and predicts that, because of the rapid economic expansion in places like India and China, demand for ICT services will quadruple by 2020.

The report finds that by then PC ownership will quadruple to four billion devices – with laptops becoming the main source of global ICT emissions – and that mobile ownership will almost double to nearly five billion over the same period.

As the world’s demand for content is delivered in real time, this growth comes with an increasing demand for energy, with virtual mountains needing to house this swelling data deluge.

Alarming and environmentally damaging according to Greenpeace, individual contributions including five-second snatchments of the banal, need not only to be available for instantaneous access by others and will need infinite data dumps to do so – the home of the data center.

Greenpeace says that data center builders must become “part of the solution to the climate change challenge, rather than part of the problem” and urge operators to “power their data centers using renewable energy”. They are also pressing US Congress to make “renewable energy more readily available”.

The recent salvos should perhaps be put into context because In its new report, “Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change”, shows that data centers and telecommunication networks “will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatts hours of electricity in 2020, more than triple their current consumption and over half the current electricity consumption of the United States — or more than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil — combined.”

But Greenpeace has been accused of blatant hypocrisy through its glaringly obvious publicity campaign. Digitaltrends reports: “You have to break some eggs to make an omelette, and apparently, you have to burn a couple watts to keep the world tapped into an always-on, instantly available ecosystem of content, ideas and information.”

The article goes on to complain that while “forward-thinking companies like Google and Facebook continue to wring every bit of utility possible from the energy they use, and help their users reduce CO2 footprints in the process, Greenpeace has nothing to do but heckle from the sidelines…”

Greenpeace is said to be targeting data center operators to meet standards it doesn’t itself meet, as some of its servers are  also powered by coal and nuclear. Let’s not forget, headline-catching topics like cloud computing attract publcity to the “good cause”.

Hypocrisy aside, Greenpeace strode on with: “We are calling on IT industry giants to put their might behind government policies that give priority grid access for renewable sources like wind and solar energy…IT companies should also support economy-wide climate and energy policies around the world that peak climate emissions by 2015…The great innovators of the digital age can and should be leaders in promoting an energy revolution.”

It is a bit strange that by announcing what I’ve had for lunch contributes to climate change and even though some may think they are on sturdy ground to dismiss Greepeace for duplicity and manipulating the media, the issue of cloud computing and its environmental impact cannot now remain unaddressed.

This is a new angle for the ICT industry to come to terms with at a time when the long-forgotten Copenhagen climate summit fiasco has been almost universally neglected.

Remember the row over whether to ditch the Kyoto protocol and its legal distinction between developed and developing countries, in which developing nations saw the so-called developed world try and wriggle out of its commitments to climate change?

Many observers at the time blamed the US for arriving at the talks with a paltry offer of emissions cuts on 1990 levels at just 4%. The final text of this farcical agreement made no further obligations on developing countries to make cuts.

Does anyone recall at the end of the summit John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, saying: “The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport”?

Now, perhaps, the ICT industry’s business leaders can lead the way and positively react to concerns about the sustainability of its data centers. If it fails to do so, its shareholders just might.


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