With heatwaves gripping three continents and global temperatures reaching record highs this summer, we may need to pay more attention to “the cloud” and the environmental impact of computing
Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the biggest contributor to climate change, but although this fact is often associated exclusively with cars, air travel and factory emissions, did you know that digital technology makes up around 4% of carbon dioxide emissions globally? Or that energy consumption increases by 9% per year?
It’s easy to see emissions from a factory or car but much less intuitive when it comes to someone developing software on their laptop. That’s a potentially big blind spot in reducing emissions, and the public sector needs to hold the tech industry more accountable for emissions produced by the infrastructure used to distribute software.
The environmental impact of computers on our planet
That developer’s laptop doesn’t work in a vacuum. It and the thousands of servers in the thousands of data centers that make up the cloud are also major producers of carbon dioxide emissions, surpassing the emissions of over 22.2 million flights annually. Globally, the UK ranks third among countries for the number of data centers, with 456 by 2022.
While the UK is generating more of its electricity from renewable sources than ever before, with 40% renewable by 2022, the government has admitted that their current “net-zero strategy will fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently”, according to the Financial Times .
The net-zero strategy will fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently
When these emissions are out of sight and out of mind, it’s easy to ignore their impact. But when we look at how data center energy is consumed, it becomes clear that the impact is significant.
The cloud’s carbon footprint was estimated at over 2% of global electricity production
According to Yale research in 2018, the cloud’s carbon footprint was estimated to be over 2% of global electricity generation, with more recent data suggesting it is now 3%. To put this into perspective, a single data center consumes the electricity of 50,000 homes. When we multiply that by 456 data centers in the UK and 8,000 globally, the scale of the impact becomes staggering.
Shockingly, about 88% of that electricity is not even used for computing processes; it is used to ensure the cloud stays up 24/7 via cooling and maintenance of redundant security cabinets.
In short, “out of sight, out of mind” is not a valid strategy for meeting the UK government’s ambitious net zero targets. Under the Paris climate agreement, they have pledged to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030, just 7 years away. This goal is intended to be a building block to reach climate neutrality by 2050, that is, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels, along with European climate legislation.
We need each tools at our disposal to reduce emissions, and as it happens, an unlikely candidate worth considering is cloud-based container orchestration technologies – specifically Kubernetes.
Cloud-native can reduce environmental impact
Kubernetes, whose name comes from the Greek word for “helmsman” or “pilot”, is an open source container orchestration system. Like the captain of a ship, it is responsible for managing or orchestrating containerized cloud applications, always ensuring proper computing, networking, storage and configuration.
It allows organizations to build, terminate, update and scale applications with better resilience, governance, security, visibility and lower operating costs.
But from an environmental perspective, Kubernetes has less obvious advantages. It automatically and intelligently grows or shrinks computing power based on what is needed, preventing resource wastage. That way, you never leave resources idle or use too many.
AI and ML: Future technologies and our changing environment
Given the AI craze we’re going through, this will be significant as AI/ML workloads are very taxing on the hardware. And as previously mentioned, an overwhelming majority of the electricity consumed in data centers is used to cool that hardware, with up to 40% spent on cooling alone. With the growing popularity of AI, that number is only going to get worse.
Kubernetes could play a significant role in alleviating this as it is not specifically designed to be a “sustainability” tool, but is designed to manage and avoid hardware redundancy. It can optimize and streamline these AI workloads (or other workloads) at scale.
Even something as basic as software test environments can see lower footprints by using Kubernetes. The old model of containerless virtual machines would force companies to leave a test environment running all the time – even when they’re not testing. In contrast, Kubernetes allows you to scale a test environment up and down as needed. This is important because more time spent developing or testing equals a larger carbon footprint.
It matters “when” you use cloud-based technology
It’s no secret that one of the reasons the UK public sector has struggled to digitally transform is the slow pace of adopting new technology.
This is not just a problem for efficiency and innovation. Your environmental impact is affected by when you adopt Kubernetes. At my recent Kubecon presentation, Scale down your environmental impactmy colleague Zinnia Gibson and I demonstrated this by asking the audience to participate in a bit of a thought experiment:
Imagine two large-scale companies in the field of game development with the same product. Company A uses Kubernetes, but Company B, which intends to use it down the road, still uses virtual machines.
The enterprise using Kubernetes, because of its “autoscaling” features, automatically uses fewer data center resources due to the design of its infrastructure, while the alternative leaves too much room for mismanaged resources at scale.
It’s also worth considering that any public sector organization that releases an application that sees its user base increase dramatically in numbers will inevitably need to scale up that application. If they haven’t already integrated Kubernetes into their workloads, they now need to worry about training and infrastructure. More time and energy spent on computers means more emissions.
The fight for sustainability will not be solved with a single solution
Of course, let’s be clear: No of this is to say that Kubernetes is “the only thing” that will defeat climate change. As one of my favorite voices in sustainability, Shelbi Orme says, “You can’t do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good you can do.”
The struggle for sustainability will not be solved by a single solution, person or industry; we all have a role to play. The technology industry’s potential to make a significant impact cannot be ignored, and the public sector needs to think about computing in the same way. Kubernetes is just one undoubtedly effective way to start cracking down on unnecessary computing inefficiencies and in turn help reduce computing’s environmental impact and carbon emissions.
Best of all, IT teams in the public sector can already access free upstream projects to reduce development time, lower costs and lower environmental impact. There are many options, but here are some favorites:
- GreenFrame: an open source tool that measures and reduces your site’s CO2 emissions by detecting carbon leaks.
- Prometheus: not specifically designed to track emissions but can help get metrics so you know when resource loss occurs.
- Microsoft Emissions Impact Dashboard: a tool specifically focused on showing carbon emissions for Azure cloud usage.
All responsible organizations will look to renewable energy efficiency improvements to reduce their carbon footprint (such as making their offices more environmentally friendly, carbon sequestration, etc.). But with the climate outlook looking so dire, we have an obligation to use as many tools as we can. Kubernetes should be part of that mix.
This piece was written and provided by Mary Karroqe, software engineer at D2iQ
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