COP27 is here, and the flurry of reports and climate change news have not stopped pouring in after an abnormally long and hot summer filled with megafires and droughts in Europe, and deadly floods in Pakistan.

Reconciling growth & impact

The question is how to reconcile the urgent need to reduce the digital sector’s carbon footprint with the constant demand for growth. Ironically enough, COP27 coincides with the anniversary of Intel’s launch (on November 15, 1971) of the 4004, its first commercial microprocessor. It marked the debut of the digital revolution and was the inspiration behind Moore’s Law, according to which the number of transistors on microchips will double roughly every 18 months. On the one hand, Moore’s Law enabled the IT industry to go through hypergrowth in the last 51 years, meaning that nearly all of us have a computer in our pockets or bags. Yet, on the other hand, because of this doubling, developers had no reason to optimize their code, as even if it runs slow on the day of release, it will run fast a year and a half later, thanks to the tech renewal rate. Now, 51 years on, we are still developing under-optimized software and, as such, continuing to squander our resources on a massive scale. For example, over the last 25 years, web pages have become 150 times bigger, and Windows and the Office Suite now need 200 times as much memory to run. Of course, our web pages and documents are much better than before, more aesthetically pleasing and intuitive, but 150-200 times better? I don't think so.

Digital = 4% of global emissions

The digital sector is continuing to grow, along with its energy consumption - it already accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions (that’s more than the aviation industry!). As a result, warnings are accumulating. The IPCC’s reports demonstrate the need to halve emissions by 2030, and the war in Ukraine reminds us that we can little afford to continue using energy unchecked. So, how can we reconcile these two seemingly disparate needs - the digital sector’s and the environment’s?

Making hardware last longer is undoubtedly the biggest driver of change available to us. In France for example, the production of computer terminals accounts for three quarters of the digital sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using equipment for five years or more, buying second-hand, and resisting the temptation of the latest gadget from an iPhone 14 to a 4K TV are all possible solutions. It’s also important to avoid the “rebound effect” of using more resources simply because they have become more accessible. This is even truer considering the fact that electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream on the planet.

How the cloud can help

Other solutions exist, such as the public cloud. Rather than keeping all your IT in-house (or on-premises) shifting to the public cloud is a winning strategy, for many reasons.

Firstly, the on-premises model means your IT infrastructure needs to be large enough to handle the most intense peaks in workload, such as Black Friday, or holiday periods for online stores. This means having massively under-utilized servers most of the time, often running at less than 10% of their capacity. As well as causing greenhouse gas emissions, this is a huge waste of energy, water, and mineral resources.

With the public cloud, however, resources are shared - clients only rent the servers they need at a given time, and can benefit from the elasticity of the cloud. This means that servers have a much higher utilization rate, as they are at their full capacity, being used simultaneously by multiple clients. Given the size of data centers, using the cloud also means benefitting from an industrial approach to closely managing the electricity consumption of equipment, its cooling, security, and internet connectivity. In short, it’s a far more efficient option than what a smaller team can do in an on-premises environment.

And what if cloud providers decided to do more? For example, by powering their data centers with renewable energy only, and by building them so that they use as little energy and water as possible for cooling?

Reusing servers for up to 10 years

The lifespan of servers is also an issue - between 10-15% of greenhouse gas emissions from servers are produced during their manufacturing. Therefore, making them last as long as possible is key to reducing their carbon footprint during usage. It is possible for servers to last up to ten years by reconditioning them, rather than the cloud industry average lifespan of 3-5 years.

At Scaleway, such initiatives are already in place, some for a decade already, and we are convinced that we all (suppliers, clients, end users) have a part to play in reducing the environmental impact of the digital sector.

Faced with climate change, the IT sector cannot bury its head in the sand. We need a paradigm shift. If the climate keeps deteriorating, and clients are unable to stay afloat, then the future of the digital industry looks bleak. It too must play its part, and migrating to the public cloud, alongside extending the lifespan of IT equipment, is the best way forward.