Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, November 29, 2022

In Defense of ICT’s Impact on Climate Change 

From the New York Times article "Power, Pollution and the Internet" to Greenpeace's criticisms of the heavy use of carbon-emitting energy sources by Amazon and other cloud computing datacenters, the ICT industry is getting a lot of criticism for dirty clouds these days. But a new report from the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI) says that the criticism is not justified. 

Everybody in the HPC and computing business knows about "that" article in the New York Times – the one that revealed that the datacenters that run the world's compute clouds use enormous amounts of energy, much of it generated by fossil fuels. They also know that it was old news, that a lot of progress has been made in reducing the power consumption and CO2 emissions from datacenters over the last several years.

Old news to industry insiders, anyway. But for much of the public, it was new information. That's what makes a good newspaper story; telling the public something they didn't know, not telling the subjects of the article what they already know about themselves – although it is much better to tell the story in a timely fashion.

One thing that is new is a report from the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI), a consortium of ICT companies trying to tell the other side of the story. It's not likely to be as widely read – or publicized – as the New York Times article, but the report is trying to offer a different perspective. Titled "GeSI SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future," it tries to get across the perspective that the environmental benefits from the Information and Communications Technology business vastly outweigh the harm from the industry's own emissions.

The report is based on a study that GeSI commissioned from The Boston Consulting Group. It's called SMARTer2020 because it's a follow-up to a similar study published in June 2008, called SMART2020. The main point of the story is that ICT will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even more than the 2008 study projected.

SMARTer2020 provides "enhanced data, analysis and breadth on end-use sectors as well as change levers," says a foreword by GeSI Chairman Luis Neves and SMARTer 2020 Steering Committee Chair Joan Krajewski.

The quick summary is that the use of ICT technologies could reduce the projected global greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2020 by 9.1 gigatons – more than seven times the industry's emissions in the same time period. That amounts to a savings of $1.9 trillion in gross energy and fuel savings. The new estimate is 16 percent higher than the estimated savings of 7.8 gigatons of the 2008 report.

These savings come from virtualization initiatives such as cloud computing and video conferencing, as well as through computer techniques such as optimizing variable-speed motors in manufacturing, smart building practices, and even "smart livestock management to reduce methane emissions." Overall, the study identifies some three dozen ICT-enabled solutions to the problem of energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions. SMARTer 2020 is, in part, targeted at policy makers. It calls for "concerted action by global policy makers to encourage the implementation of ICT abatement solutions," according to the report summary.

Of course, another possible use of the report is to try to prevent legislators from putting restrictions on datacenter operators in the first place. Four days after the New York Times article was published, for example, U.S. representatives Henry A. Waxman, Bobby L. Rush and Anna G. Eshoo sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to request "a briefing on and detailed description of your efforts to improve the energy efficiency of data centers...")

But the story is far from over. Datacenters still need to be run more efficiently and cleaner. Most datacenters run off the grid, as clean or dirty as its source of energy happens to be. A huge amount of the energy is wasted on idle or comatose servers that do nothing but consume power and generate heat, and more is wasted on cooling systems to dissipate that heat.

Inside a Google Datacenter

The industry is really just starting to move into the second generation of datacenters. Servers, microprocessors and cooling systems are getting more energy efficient. Countries with cool climates and regions with renewable energy sources are offering incentives to draw in datacenters. Organizations such as ASHRAE and the Green Grid offer evidence that most datacenters can be run warmer than they are now without significant adverse effects. And, still more nascent, companies and research centers are developing software that should be able to locate zombie servers and power down idle servers when computer loads are lower.

The positive results of the study do not mean that the computing industry should ignore the issue of green datacenters and HPC. It should do just the opposite, and increase its efforts to reduce energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps, at least to a U.S. business audience, the most important finding of the report is that part about saving $1.9 trillion in energy and fuel costs. That's a good motivation to increase efficiency.

There's always the public relations issue as well. A bad reputation is a hard thing to shake. Not that people are going to stop using their cell phones, quit interfacing on Facebook, give up on Google searches or stop watching YouTube videos because the datacenter clouds are not clean enough.

But arguing that ICT is a great way to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions sounds hollow when the ICT companies themselves are unconcerned with the fact that 90 percent of the power going into their datacenters is wasted, especially if that power comes from coal plants or other sources of 'dirty' energy. It's something akin to using a leaky oil tanker to transport recovered oil to recycling centers.

And then there are some companies – such as Google and Facebook – that seem to be run by people who are genuinely interested in reducing their own carbon footprint as well as that of their customers using their clouds. When that initiative saves money as well, it's not a difficult decision to make.

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