Driving sustainability in the clouds

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Much has happened when the world leaders met in New York for the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit these last few days. It was, in fact, the most consequential climate gatherings since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. This landmark treaty was aimed at strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise this century below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

As we've seen this week, it's been four years and most nations are still far from honouring their Paris pledge.

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted climate change as a matter of "life and death" during the National Day Rally 2019 - and indeed it is. With rising temperatures (and the associated sea levels), climate change can cost ASEAN 11 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of the century.

The private sector is a critical component in framing solutions to this growing problem. In recent years, sustainability reporting has become an integral part of all companies' business strategies. In fact, over half of ASEAN nations are already enforcing mandatory disclosures or plan to do so soon.

Malaysia is an exemplary leader in this field, with 97 per cent of the Top 100 companies by revenue (N100) reporting their corporate sustainability performance, compared to the global average of 72 per cent. Businesses in Thailand are the most forthcoming, with 46 per cent of businesses producing standalone sustainability reports, while 22 per cent of listed companies conducted external verification on sustainability information disclosure. In Singapore, sustainability reporting is gaining momentum especially since the introduction of the carbon tax in 2018.

These are driving changes in corporate behaviours - but more can and must be done.

Rise of data centres: major source of energy use and carbon emissions

Since the turn of the century, data centres and the information and communications technology (ICT) industry in general are some of the most prolific consumers of energy and most significant carbon footprint generators. As the world's fastest growing data centre market, China is set to use 267 terawatt-hours of energy by 2023 - that's enough to power Singapore for the next five years, according to the nation's 2018 energy consumption levels, ceteris paribus.

It is safe to say, this is the result of the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. Businesses worldwide are now driven by big data, Internet of Things, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality - the list goes on. And for every email, photo, video and phone call successfully sent, there is a data centre making it happen.

However, data centres and the ICT industry consume a lot of energy that we do not see. As more data is created by machines than humans, the ICT industry has produced more more carbon globally than the aviation industry. Experts believe that by 2040, the ICT industry will be responsible for 14 per cent of global emissions.

In Singapore, the innovation hub of ASEAN, the ICT sector saw a 164 per cent growth in energy consumption from 2008 to 2018 while data centres are expected to consume up to 12 per cent of Singapore's total energy demand by 2030 . Put two and two together, you get a considerably large amount of energy that will continue to rise in the coming years.

The good news is the big market leaders in cloud - AWS, Microsoft and Google - are finding considerable efficiency gains to off-set the growth of the overall market. At least two of the Big Three run 'power grid' sized generation activities in solar and wind. Microsoft claims their cloud operations are 100 per cent carbon neutral. Google is the world's largest consumer of sustainable power 14, while AWS is at 50 per cent renewable with the aim of reaching 100 per cent

This drive towards sustainability by the huge cloud players is a commendable move, but the onus also lies on businesses to make the right IT decisions.

'Cloud Responsibility'

While the businesses efficiencies these global providers can offer to businesses is clear, there is also an important, two-fold message, that must come along with this realisation - the critical need to have 'cloud responsibility'.

Firstly, this means organisations can create a significant positive impact on their own ICT team's carbon footprint by operating a cloud-first approach and choosing to work with a cloud provider - a far more sustainable strategy than doing it on-premise.

Secondly, by utilising modern data management techniques and migrating data and workloads to the cloud, organisations can more effectively move, manage and use data across more pragmatic and scalable hybrid IT environments. This means less unnecessarily duplicated data being maintained in carbon-generating data centres, and more efficient, smarter approaches to dev/test, disaster recovery, and analytics. This will create greener but also more competitive organisations.

Organisations cannot afford to ignore the competitive edge that employing technologies like cloud can give to a business. However, this profit-driven ethos does not need to be the only driver for innovation in these areas.

As employees of organisations, and individual citizens of our planet, we have a duty of care to the generations yet to come, by putting the long-term health of our planet above selfish short-term economic gain. By committing to cloud responsibility, organisations all over the globe can play their part in the much wider societal movement towards a greener, more sustainable future. The time to take action is now.

The writer is Vice President for Asia Pacific, Commvault

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