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Give the Cloud Some Credit, Greenpeace

Your tweets, Facebook photos and online documents are going up in smoke. Literally, says Greenpeace.

According to the organization’s “Make IT Green” report, the server farms and data centers that drive cloud-based services along with telecom infrastructure, PCs and peripherals, accounted for over 830 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2007.

That’s a startling figure. Until you put it into context. Read the full report that Greenpeace cherry-picked its statistics from, and you’ll find that combined emission from all information and communication technologies (ICT) only accounted for two percent of global CO2 emissions. That’s some valuable context Greenpeace never saw fit to include in its own report, which underscores the problem in Greenpeace’s strategy of never-ending nitpicking: cloud computing is a solution to environmental woes, not one of them.

Can’t see the forest for the trees? Greenpeace can’t see the clouds for the CO2.

The Alleged Problem is the Solution

Yes, data centers consume massive amounts of electricity. Yes, much of it comes from coal. But losing perspective and attacking the likes of Facebook for building data centers that don’t use renewable power is like attacking bicycle commuters because the food they eat to power the bikes takes fossil fuels to grow and distribute. Good point, Sherlock. Maybe we can worry about that in 2050, but don’t you have bigger fish to fry right now? (Sorry. Tofu to fry?)

Cloud computing helps eliminate other CO2 emissions in so many ways, it’s almost impossible to enumerate them all. Rather than shooting photos on film, driving them to the developer in my gasoline-powered car, exposing the negatives with chemicals, printing them on paper, then sending them 3,000 miles across the country in a diesel-fueled mail truck to my parents, I shoot them digitally and put them on Flickr. Rather than swapping calendars, spreadsheets and Word documents with colleagues on reams of printed paper, then reprinting them whenever I revise something, I do it all on Google Docs. And rather than mailing out 25 stamped, printed party invitations to friends, I do it with e-mail and eVites.

The evidence in favor of the cloud as a net diminisher of CO2 isn’t just anecdotal, it has been studied. According to Smart 2020, the same organization Greenpeace sourced numbers from for its critique, “ICT’s largest influence will be by enabling energy efficiencies in other sectors, an opportunity that could deliver carbon savings five times larger than the total emissions from the entire ICT sector in 2020.” SMART adds that, “No other sector can supply technology capabilities so integral to energy efficiency across such a range of other sectors or industries.”

Hypocrisy at Every Turn

You have to break some eggs to make an omelette, and apparently, you have to burn a couple watts to keep the world tapped into an always-on, instantly available ecosystem of content, ideas and information. Who knew?

While forward-thinking companies like Google and Facebook continue to wring every bit of utility possible from the energy they use, and help their users reduce CO2 footprints in the process, Greenpeace has nothing to do but heckle from the sidelines that they could be doing better – after all, targeting a hot topic like cloud computing is good PR, right?

And who’s hosting Greenpeace.org, anyway? According to Data Center Knowledge, the organization’s data center in Amsterdam washes away the hypocrisy of its own carbon footprint with carbon credits, and the one in northern Virginia… well, it just burns whatever’s on the other end of the grid. According to Dominion power, the public utility that serves the area, 60 percent of it comes from fossil fuels, including 26 percent from coal.

Get your head out of the clouds, Greenpeace. And eat your own dog food while you’re at it. Google does.