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This is the hidden carbon footprint behind your Netflix habits

This is the hidden carbon footprint behind your Netflix habits

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How eco-friendly is the cloud?

How eco-friendly is the cloud?

This is the hidden carbon footprint behind your Netflix habits
By now almost all of us would have heard the term: “It’s in the cloud”. All the services we use to keep us connected every day – the Netflix and YouTube we enjoy watching, the video calls we have with colleagues and friends, the work related stuff we do with Dropbox and collaborative Google documents, passwords automatically filling in across our devices, and even the music we stream – are all made possible by the cloud.

For many of us, this is simply the only world we know.

But just over a decade ago, or an "internet century" ago, things were very different. Yes, we may have had some kind of YouTube and video streaming, but this was strictly on the home computer and data costs were expensive! When we wanted to listen to music, we would need to find the songs we wanted online, download them onto our computers and then find a way to copy them onto our mobile devices or MP3 players so we could take with us into our daily lives. And collaborating on a real-time online document? No ways! Is that even possible? Sharing passwords across devices? People actually save their passwords!?

All these internet luxuries we use on a daily basis are thanks to the cloud.

So, what is the cloud?

In very simple words, the cloud is a collection of computers or servers, sitting in a data centre somewhere. These servers usually belong to a company that specialises in deploying cloud data centres and have a good global profile. Why doesn’t each company have their own data centre? It’s expensive. For example, Netflix closed down their own data centres to host on Amazon’s because Amazon specialise in this business and operate many data centres globally.

Everything we do online has some degree of carbon footprint

Data centres have emissions, and how that data gets from the data centre to our devices also has emissions. If it's over a mobile data connection or fixed line, there are also different emissions for each of these. Data centres themselves are not evil and don't actually produce any carbon emissions directly. They simply draw a lot of electricity and, depending on how that electricity is generated, that is where the carbon footprint originates.

Data centres also produce a massive amount of heat and require huge cooling infrastructures in order to keep the servers running happily. Certain regions have electricity grids that are cleaner or dirtier than others, so depending on where they are based, data centres can have different carbon footprints to each other.

This depends on how green the electricity grid in the region is. Let’s use Norway as an example. They have one of the greenest grids in the world, producing only 16 g CO2/kWh, compared to South Africa where the electricity grid is producing almost 1000 g CO2/kWh!

Further down the line we need to look at how we access the data from the cloud. In 2020 the German Federal Environment Ministry and the German Environment Agency released a report on the climate footprint of streaming. Based on the global average, fibre connectivity produced 2 g CO2/hr, 5 g CO2/hr for 5G and 90 g CO2/hr for 3G. Mobile connectivity has become a lot more efficient over the years.

And finally, how we consume the data also has an impact. For example, watching on a modern LCD TV will use roughly 70 watts and produce approximately 49 grams of CO2 per hour based on the global average. Watching on an iPad, on the other hand will produce only 7 grams of CO2 per hour based on the global average. This value will differ on how clean the electricity grid is where you live, but the averages give you an idea of the comparison.

So, what does one hour of Netflix look like in reality?

If we combine all the carbon emitters above, using the global average, the person watching Netflix on their modern TV will produce roughly 400 g/CO2 per hour. This is the equivalent CO2 that's required to produce:

- 5 km in a Tesla

- 14 grams of steak

- 1 latte

So don't worry, there are worse things you could be doing.

How cloud providers are actively trying to reduce the carbon footprint of their data centres

I know, I know. By now it probably feels like we really can’t escape hurting the environment and everything we do is having some kind of negative impact. While there is some truth to this, rest assured it's not all bad.

The companies behind these data centres are well aware of the massive energy requirements needed to support their infrastructure, and the need to reduce the emissions associated with them. This has forced them to look into alternative energy sources to power their data centres.

Google has a total renewable energy portfolio of 5.5 GW. To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent amount of power produced by 412 wind turbines, 3.125 million solar panels or 1.3 million galloping horses. Amazon’s renewable portfolio is around 1.6 GW – that's roughly enough to power 5 000 homes.

Microsoft also has an excellent renewable portfolio of almost 2 GW. They’ve taken it a step further and come up with an innovative way to reduce the energy needs of their data centres by making use of naturally cold climates to handle the server cooling instead of running fans with electricity. They have even gone as far as to place a data centre on the ocean floor – with great results.

Aside from investing in renewable energy to help get them close to being carbon neutral, data centre providers purchase carbon credits to cover the rest of their carbon deficits.

The bottom line

To sum up, unfortunately the cloud isn’t a harmless place in the sky where magical technology things happen. It is made up of real carbon emitting data centres. Fortunately, the impact of these is constantly being reduced and the companies running them are innovating quickly – helping to keep our Netflix hours as guilt free as possible.

By now almost all of us would have heard the term: “It’s in the cloud”. All the services we use to keep us connected every day – the Netflix and YouTube we enjoy watching, the video calls we have with colleagues and friends, the work related stuff we do with Dropbox and collaborative Google documents, passwords automatically filling in across our devices, and even the music we stream – are all made possible by the cloud.

For many of us, this is simply the only world we know.

But just over a decade ago, or an "internet century" ago, things were very different. Yes, we may have had some kind of YouTube and video streaming, but this was strictly on the home computer and data costs were expensive! When we wanted to listen to music, we would need to find the songs we wanted online, download them onto our computers and then find a way to copy them onto our mobile devices or MP3 players so we could take with us into our daily lives. And collaborating on a real-time online document? No ways! Is that even possible? Sharing passwords across devices? People actually save their passwords!?

All these internet luxuries we use on a daily basis are thanks to the cloud.

So, what is the cloud?

In very simple words, the cloud is a collection of computers or servers, sitting in a data centre somewhere. These servers usually belong to a company that specialises in deploying cloud data centres and have a good global profile. Why doesn’t each company have their own data centre? It’s expensive. For example, Netflix closed down their own data centres to host on Amazon’s because Amazon specialise in this business and operate many data centres globally.

Everything we do online has some degree of carbon footprint

Data centres have emissions, and how that data gets from the data centre to our devices also has emissions. If it's over a mobile data connection or fixed line, there are also different emissions for each of these. Data centres themselves are not evil and don't actually produce any carbon emissions directly. They simply draw a lot of electricity and, depending on how that electricity is generated, that is where the carbon footprint originates.

Data centres also produce a massive amount of heat and require huge cooling infrastructures in order to keep the servers running happily. Certain regions have electricity grids that are cleaner or dirtier than others, so depending on where they are based, data centres can have different carbon footprints to each other.

This depends on how green the electricity grid in the region is. Let’s use Norway as an example. They have one of the greenest grids in the world, producing only 16 g CO2/kWh, compared to South Africa where the electricity grid is producing almost 1000 g CO2/kWh!

Further down the line we need to look at how we access the data from the cloud. In 2020 the German Federal Environment Ministry and the German Environment Agency released a report on the climate footprint of streaming. Based on the global average, fibre connectivity produced 2 g CO2/hr, 5 g CO2/hr for 5G and 90 g CO2/hr for 3G. Mobile connectivity has become a lot more efficient over the years.

And finally, how we consume the data also has an impact. For example, watching on a modern LCD TV will use roughly 70 watts and produce approximately 49 grams of CO2 per hour based on the global average. Watching on an iPad, on the other hand will produce only 7 grams of CO2 per hour based on the global average. This value will differ on how clean the electricity grid is where you live, but the averages give you an idea of the comparison.

So, what does one hour of Netflix look like in reality?

If we combine all the carbon emitters above, using the global average, the person watching Netflix on their modern TV will produce roughly 400 g/CO2 per hour. This is the equivalent CO2 that's required to produce:

- 5 km in a Tesla

- 14 grams of steak

- 1 latte

So don't worry, there are worse things you could be doing.

How cloud providers are actively trying to reduce the carbon footprint of their data centres

I know, I know. By now it probably feels like we really can’t escape hurting the environment and everything we do is having some kind of negative impact. While there is some truth to this, rest assured it's not all bad.

The companies behind these data centres are well aware of the massive energy requirements needed to support their infrastructure, and the need to reduce the emissions associated with them. This has forced them to look into alternative energy sources to power their data centres.

Google has a total renewable energy portfolio of 5.5 GW. To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent amount of power produced by 412 wind turbines, 3.125 million solar panels or 1.3 million galloping horses. Amazon’s renewable portfolio is around 1.6 GW – that's roughly enough to power 5 000 homes.

Microsoft also has an excellent renewable portfolio of almost 2 GW. They’ve taken it a step further and come up with an innovative way to reduce the energy needs of their data centres by making use of naturally cold climates to handle the server cooling instead of running fans with electricity. They have even gone as far as to place a data centre on the ocean floor – with great results.

Aside from investing in renewable energy to help get them close to being carbon neutral, data centre providers purchase carbon credits to cover the rest of their carbon deficits.

The bottom line

To sum up, unfortunately the cloud isn’t a harmless place in the sky where magical technology things happen. It is made up of real carbon emitting data centres. Fortunately, the impact of these is constantly being reduced and the companies running them are innovating quickly – helping to keep our Netflix hours as guilt free as possible.

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