Greenpeace announces its latest report about the environmental impacts of cloud

Apple, Google, Facebook and Switch (who?) top the list.

arctic sunrise greenpeace rijeka
Roberta F. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Greenpeace, the organization that is an advocate for the environment, is a useful part of the conversation around technology.

Readers would be forgiven for scratching their heads as to why Greenpeace would have anything of note to say about technology, but the fact of the matter is that increasingly consumption, economics and, by extension, environmental impacts, are created and impacted by the technology decisions that we, as consumers, make.

Greenpeace produces a regular report, the “Click-Clean” report, which details how different tech companies fare in terms of their moves towards sustainability. In particular, Greenpeace looks at how the big cloud computing companies utilize renewable power and what they do to encourage others to also think about their footprint. And when you consider that around 7% of global electricity is estimated to be utilized by technology generally, even small improvements in the efficiency of said equipment can lead to some positive impacts.

And so, who rates well, and who is falling behind this year?

Apple, Google and Facebook are the three big players who shine this year, but interestingly Switch, a niche player who is rapidly creating a position for itself in the data center world, also shines in the list of vendors who are making the biggest efforts to reach 100% renewable energy. The report calls out Netflix, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Samsung as particularly poor performers.

The report outlined the energy footprint of both the larger data center operators and around 70 of the most popular websites, applications and social media platforms on earth.

In terms of the report cards, both Microsoft and Salesforce got Bs while AWS scored a C. It needs to be pointed out that Greenpeace made special mention of AWS’s reticence to clearly articulate the scale of its environmental impacts and the measures it is taking to improve those impacts. Therefore the C grade may well be, at least in part, as much a reflection of lack of transparency as it is about actual impacts.

It also should be pointed out that AWS is widely regarded as the biggest and fastest growing cloud vendor and, as such, the challenges it faces to “go green” are arguably more difficult to overcome. AWS notably did publicly sign up to some clean energy deals in 2016, including the use of some wind energy in the U.S. Greenpeace was quick, however, to note that AWS has a massive scale operation in Virginia and noted that state is primarily served by less environmentally friendly energy.

Interestingly, Netflix has one of the largest data footprints of the companies profiled, accounting for one third of internet traffic in North America and contributing significantly to the worldwide data demand from video streaming. The company announced in 2015 that it intended to fully offset its carbon footprint, but Greenpeace notes that a closer examination reveals it is likely turning to carbon offsets or unbundled renewable energy credits, which do little to increase renewable energy investment

"Like Apple, Facebook, and Google, Netflix is one of the biggest drivers of the online world and has a critical say in how it is powered. Netflix must embrace the responsibility to make sure its growth is powered by renewables, not fossil fuels and it must show its leadership here,” stated a Greenpeace spokesperson.

For the first time, this year’s report also evaluates Asian companies including tech giants Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba and Naver, which are steadily expanding globally. The region is, as readers may have suspected, well behind the U.S. market in renewable commitments, due in large part to fewer clean energy options from monopoly utilities. 

“Leading tech companies in the U.S. have shown that clean power can be both good for the environment and for business. East Asian companies must step up to embrace that reality as well,” said Jude Lee, senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

On a positive note, nearly 20 IT companies have committed to 100% renewable energy use now. Among all data centers evaluated, Switch -- the aforementioned surprise new entrant to the report -- is making the best progress to transitioning its data center fleet to renewables through both procurement and aggressive advocacy. 

Alongside the statistic that the IT industry’s energy footprint accounted for 7% of global electricity in 2012, Greenpeace points out that this number looks set to grow as global internet traffic increases, and may even exceed 12% by 2017. Video streaming accounted for 63% of global internet traffic in 2015, and is projected to reach about 80% by 2020

Rather than just a static report, however, Greenpeace uses the opportunity to make a call to action for all technology organizations to:

  • Make a long term commitment to become 100% renewably powered.
  • Commit to being transparent on IT energy performance and consumption of resources, including the source of electricity, to enable customers, investors, and stakeholders to measure progress toward that goal.

  • Develop a strategy for increasing their supply of renewable energy, through a mixture of procurement, investment, and corporate advocacy to both electricity suppliers and government decision makers.


Sunlight is, as they say, the best disinfectant -- and this report is a great contribution to allowing consumers to make some decisions about what they do.

That said, the reality is that consumers and enterprises are unlikely to change their choices based simply on environmental impact. The system within which these organizations work is broken, with no economic price to pay (or not much, anyway) for utilizing polluting electricity. Rather than berate the vendors, it is important to change the economic models that decide consumption patterns.

I suspect that the incoming U.S. government, however, will do little to take the world down this path and it will be interesting to see how the various vendors choices change in what is like to be a far more free regulatory environment.


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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