Dear EarthTalk: Why is Greenpeace upset with some leading tech companies for so-called “dirty cloud computing?” Can you explain? -- Jeremy Wilkins, Waco, TX
Leading tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are now offering unprecedented amounts of data storage and access to “apps” on huge Internet-connected servers, saving consumers and businesses the hassle of installing and running programs and storing information on their own local computers.
|Greenpeace wants companies like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft to
make smarter, cleaner energy choices now that "cloud computing"
services have ratcheted up power consumption considerably.
This emerging trend, dubbed “cloud computing,” means that these providers have had to scale up their power consumption considerably, as they are increasingly responsible for providing more and more of the computing horsepower required by the world’s two billion Internet users. No doubt, sharing such resources on centralized servers is more efficient than every individual and business running their own versions separately. In fact, the research firm Verdantix estimates that companies off-loading data and services to cloud servers could save $12 billion off their energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 million metric tons within the next decade. But for the greenhouse gas savings to be realized, the companies offering cloud computing services need to make the right energy choices.
Greenpeace has been tracking sustainability among tech companies for over a decade, and recently released a report, “How Green is Your Cloud?” assessing the green footprint of the move to cloud computing. According to the analysis, some of the major players (Google, Facebook and Yahoo) have gone to great lengths to ensure that significant amounts of the power they need come from clean, green sources like wind and solar. But Greenpeace chastises others (Apple, Amazon and Microsoft) for relying on so-called “dirtier” sources of power, such as coal and nuclear, to run their huge data centers.
“When people around the world share their music or photos on the cloud, they want to know that the cloud is powered by clean, safe energy,” says Gary Cook, a Senior Policy Analyst with Greenpeace. “Yet highly innovative and profitable companies like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are building data centers powered by coal and acting like their customers won’t know or won't care. They’re wrong.”
Greenpeace’s report evaluates 14 major tech firms and the electricity supply chains in use across more than 80 different data centers that power cloud-based services. Some of the largest data centers are in buildings so big they are visible from space and use as much power as 250,000 European homes. If the cloud were its own country, says Greenpeace, it would rank 5th in the world in electricity consumption.
“Companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook are beginning to lead the sector down a clean energy pathway through innovations in energy efficiency, prioritizing renewable energy access when siting their data centers, and demanding better energy options from utilities and government decision-makers,” reports Greenpeace. But unfortunately the majority of the industry is not marching in step. As such, Greenpeace is calling on all tech companies with cloud services to develop siting policies based on access to clean energy sources, invest in or directly purchase renewable energy, be transparent about their energy usage, share innovative solutions so the sector as a whole can improve, and demand that governments and utilities increase the percentage of clean, green power available on the grid.
Dear EarthTalk: I understand there is to be another Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012, 20 years since the last one was held in the same city. What’s on the agenda this time?
-- Janet Grayson, Albuquerque, NM
|Rio+20 participants hope this event, due to take place June 20-22, 2012, will
be remembered as an historic occasion when nations of the world aligned be-
hind the cause of staving off global environmental catastrophe, but several
earlier events have produced very little and, as such, expectations remain low.
Credit: Artyom Sharbatyan
According to the United Nations, the so-called “Rio+20 Conference”—officially the UN Conference on Sustainable Development—is a new attempt in a new millennium to “lay the foundations of a world of prosperity, peace and sustainability.” The event will take place June 20-22, the 20th anniversary of 1992’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD)—the “Rio Earth Summit”—and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
The main agenda items will be reviewing the progress and difficulties associated with moving towards sustainability, assessing responses to the newly emerging challenges faced by our societies, and strengthening political commitments to sustainable development. Underlying themes include finding ways to leverage the green economy to foster sustainable development and poverty eradication, and setting up an effective institutional framework for future global sustainable development initiatives. Delegates from the 200+ nations and thousands of private and nonprofit sector attendees will focus on sustainable cities, decent jobs, food security and sustainable agriculture, energy, oceans, and disaster readiness.
To the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, DC-based think tank devoted to sustainability issues, Rio+20 is important as it forces the world’s nations to “review progress on and reaffirm a global commitment to the policies designed to foster economic growth that is both inclusive and respects the planet’s limited carrying capacity.” WRI adds that amid a global recession, a widening gap between rich and poor and heightened competition for energy, food and other natural resources, the conference couldn’t be timelier but “unfortunately, no clear vision for Rio+20 has emerged, and expectations...remain low.”
But conference participants are busy preparing. The Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future (SFSF), a network of non-governmental participants, is busy developing the Global Transition 2012 Initiative, which will lay out specific recommendations culled from organizations and thought leaders around the world.
“A goal of the initiative is to achieve an outcome from Rio+20 that catalyses a ‘Global Transition’ to an economy that maximizes well-being, operates within environmental limits and is capable of coping and adapting to global environmental change,” reports the SFSF. “The Global Transition 2012 initiative will propose focused and accessible goals, targets and policy interventions that will chart a clear route towards the greening of the global economy, and the achievement of social and economic justice.”
Rio+20 participants hope this event will be remembered as an historic occasion when nations of the world aligned behind the cause of staving off global environmental catastrophe. But the more likely outcome is a few non-binding agreements that will soon be forgotten by constituents, the media and even many of the participating countries. Not since 1987’s Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals have nations of the world been able to come together in a significant way to address specific environmental ills. And without any binding agreements already on the table, Rio+20 doesn’t look to dazzle either.