The Cloud vs the Environment

Fence & Cloud

I found myself having an argument with someone about that Greenpeace anti-cloud campaign from a couple of years ago or so.

Greenpeace’s argument here is:

  1. Cloud providers use a lot of energy to power their data centres.
  2. They need to increase the proportion of power that comes from renewables.

Unfortunately, most people ignore point (2) and interpret the implications of (1) in one of two ways:

  1. We depart the information age and don’t use computers as all
  2. We move back to the pre-cloud world of client-server and ISP hosted applications

Broadly interpreted as “cloud companies are bad, mmmkay?” But, if pause was given to think about it…

1) Is clearly totally untenable. We’re not willingly departing the information age unless we have to, in the event of some kind of apocalyptic event. And hopefully not even then – the Internet would be a great tool to help track down and wipe out nests of zombies.

2) is even worse for the environment. People forget that, before they had Gmail accounts, they had a email address, or a email address from their Internet Service Provider. Many still do. As many customers as these guys have, they pale in insignificance relative to the tens and hundreds of millions of users the cloud providers have. And therefore their systems are less efficient and consume and waste proportionately more energy.

Greenpeace should be campaigning for everyone to leave those services behind and embrace the cloud so a whole host of ISP email (and other…) servers can be retired.

What they’re actually focused on (not that you would have recognised this from the media coverage) is for data centres to become more efficient and use more power from renewable sources. Whether this is Greenpeace’s fault or the media’s for sensationalising the story, who can say, but either way, I now have to have this argument with people that whilst cloud computing might be bad for the environment in the way that any net-carbon positive activity is bad for the environment, it is an order of magnitude better than any of the alternatives… thankfully Google is helping me out by leading the way in renewable energy use, efficient data centre design, and good storytelling to boot…