Baldur Bjarnason

... works as a web developer in Hveragerði, Iceland, and writes about the web, digital publishing, and web/product development

These are his notes

On those 'the cloud is bad for the environment' comments that keep cropping up

The Coronavirus outbreak has led to a renewed drive towards moving everything to the cloud: education, work, conventions, meetings, networking, etc.

This is potentially problematic for a variety of reasons (most companies don’t know how to do it properly, it takes practice to do properly). However, one type of pushback against ‘the cloud’ which has cropped up again is of the ‘what about the environment?’ variety.

That particular criticism is less relevant than it might seem at first glance.

Every single ‘moving activity online can actually be bad for the environment’ article I’ve seen so far uses calculations that assume that your devices, the devices you’re connecting to, and the datacentres are all using electricity from mostly non-renewable sources.

This is increasingly not true for datacentres. Both AWS and Google have invested a lot in renewable energy sources for their datacentres and the more sustainable they become, the lower the environmental footprint is for services hosted using their services.

If you are located anywhere in Canada or Europe, odds are that some or all of your electricity comes from renewable sources. 40-60% of the electricity in many Canadian provinces and many European countries come from renewable sources. In many regions, all of the electricity you consume may come from a renewable source.

Switching to using transport powered even partially by renewable energy is beyond the capabilities of many people. Electric cars are expensive. Scooters and bicycles may not be that useful for people with children. Airplane travel doesn’t even have the option.

If you switch to remote work or videoconferencing in lieu of travel, odds are that at the very least part of the infrastructure you’re using is powered using renewable energy. The switching costs are often negligable compared to transport switching costs.

If you are lucky enough to live in a city with good public transport or all of your meetings and workplaces are within a walkable distance, then, yes, switching to videoconferencing is probably less environmentally friendly.

If the choice is between driving and high-definition videoconferencing, then the ‘cloud’ will almost always be better for the environment. Esp. if you live in an area where the electricity supply is of the renewable variety.

And if the alternative is flying, then the difference is on the level of several orders of magnitude.