Not too long ago, corporations' sole purpose was to maximize profits for shareholders. But now organizations of all sizes are walking away from that approach, in part due to consumer demands for more environmentally and eco-friendly products. The result? Green consciousness is making its way into IT as major organizations take the sustainability pledge. Microsoft, for instance, has introduced a sustainability calculator to reduce the environmental impact of businesses by simplifying its reporting and introducing sustainable processes.

For organizations committed to producing shareholder value while reducing the toll on the environment and economies, harnessing cloud is a great green start.

Cloud — A Sustainable Ally?

Sustainable cloud technologies provide one way for companies to improve their commitments to reducing carbon emissions and fostering innovation. A move to the cloud is like switching from owning a personal car to sharing one (or riding public transportation). Businesses need a lot of hardware, huge facilities with round-the-clock power and cooling systems to keep their on-premises servers running. The move to cloud computing results in reduced infrastructure, physical space and energy usage since cloud-native applications consume fewer resources.

The adoption of cloud also holds the potential to improve organizations' ability to support remote work in the new normal. The move reduces the need for large office spaces, lowering carbon dioxide emissions associated with each enterprise. In fact, Capgemini research suggests cloud computing could potentially remove 1 billion metric tons of CO2 between 2021 and 2024.

While this brings a number of benefits, traditional data centers must be reinvented for zero waste and greater efficiency in order to achieve this. With their abundant resources (financial, technological and human capital), the largest cloud providers are best suited to lead the way in building a carbon-neutral cloud. Google’s Third Decade of Climate Action report highlights how an efficient cloud system can lead to the most efficient renewable energy consumption, greener data centers, easier cloud migration processes and a consumption-oriented approach.

Related Article: Advance the 3 Pillars of Sustainability Through Tech

The Challenges in Fulfilling the Efficiency Promise

Even though we see a shift to the cloud as a positive development for businesses and the environment, it's still not completely clean. The still massive environmental impact of the cloud can be attributed to our design and technology choices. Many organizations are improving their environmental impact by transitioning to digital, but are not always mindful of their unintended consequences. Organizations thus need to have a broader conversation about responsibly incorporating carbon-conscious digital tools and practices.

IT organizations are steadily moving away from the ‘move fast break things’ approach. Though data centers remain that use enough energy to power about 80,000 American households, so too do organizations like AWS that are increasingly working toward making their cloud infrastructure more energy-efficient. Countries like Iceland have the most promising conditions for increasing IT sustainability, and can contribute to the green agenda.

Learning Opportunities

Decoding the Green Cloud Optimization

The transformational power of cloud is undeniable, but it should not cost organizations and our planet a fortune. Traditional data centers are not environmentally sustainable due to their incongruous power consumption and reliance on non-renewable energy. A large portion of the issue can be solved by switching to renewable sources of energy. Building power-efficient, green data centers can also reduce organizations’ carbon footprint to near-zero levels.

The shift of Emirates Group from on-premises to the cloud in 2020 resulted annual savings of $1 million. Yedpay found its costs reduced by 40% after migrating to the cloud. Under Armour Connected Fitness's move to the cloud solved its reliability challenge. Capital One’s reduction in development environment reduced time from several months to a couple of minutes by embracing the cloud. And HCL’s cloud-native approach enhanced customer experience for the U.S.-based wireless network operator. All of these are testimonials to the fact that cloud sustainability is achievable by harmonization of other smart factors. They also show that cloud adoption can drive organizations toward sustainable growth, while improving scalability and enhancing operational efficiency. 

Sustainable consumption models are key to optimizing the cloud. This is where we are looking to build a circular economy — where cloud supports the very technologies which optimize it. Optimizing waste and building smarter shipping and distribution strategies is critical and we are already seeing businesses move in that direction. IBM has heavily invested in developing sustainable products and solutions, recognizing artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and Quantum as areas for breakthrough. A consumption-oriented approach can help to build and consume what is needed, and reduces waste, spillage and leaks. Today’s emerging cloud consumption model factors in sustainability as a key element and informs business decisions.

Related Article: Is Remote Work Good or Bad for the Environment?

Greener Planet Plus Greener Balance Sheet

Cloud adoption is fraught with challenges for companies. Yet creating a sustainable future is more than a nice-to-have, it has emerged as a key to long-term success. Therefore, it is necessary for organizations to strike a balance between the two.

In the right hands, IT can be a powerful tool that enables sustainable business operations. How sustainable and beneficial an organization’s solutions are will be determined by the decisions they make. With the right choices, organizations can achieve unprecedented levels of innovation resulting in a greener planet as well as a greener balance sheet.

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