Technology can do amazing things as long as it has enough computing power. Artificial intelligence can complete complicated tasks with fewer errors, allowing people to focus on bigger-picture responsibilities. Big data collects, processes, purifies, and analyzes metrics from virtually any digital source. Blockchain technology openly tracks and shares information across an organization’s network.

Companies need massive power, storage, and oversight to handle these technologies. Many businesses turn to cloud computing for help building or scaling their network’s infrastructure. Companies also use data centers to store and protect large amounts of information they might collect. Although this movement to increasingly digital solutions has allowed businesses to become paperless, it isn’t without its environmental downsides, either.

The Carbon Footprint of the Cloud

Large-scale cloud computing and data storage can create a significant carbon footprint. For example, cloud data centers rely on constant electricity to power hardware, including massive air conditioning units. Generators required for this supply of electricity create high carbon emissions that negatively affect the environment.

Cloud providers have reached a point where they achieve a higher carbon footprint than every airline combined. At peak performance, one data center consumes enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

Features like redundant servers and scalable systems — which prevent downtime and handle traffic fluctuations — drive an even higher need for power and processing systems. That being said, most data centers only require 6-12% of their total energy usage to keep computers running. The rest of the electricity keeps systems cool and maintains redundant systems to prevent data loss.

The overall growing carbon footprint of cloud technology makes it even more important to improve sustainability across data and AI systems. Even small, ongoing efforts can help people enjoy the benefits of cloud computing without many of the drawbacks.

Challenges for Sustainability

The world’s shift toward cloud computing has changed the way people collect, store, and use data. However, that same shift creates new challenges for ongoing sustainability efforts.

Here are some of the sustainability issues associated with cloud computing:

Challenges like construction, e-waste, and fossil-fueled power grids can threaten sustainability around the world. Fortunately, the same computing technology that threatens sustainability can also create new opportunities.

Opportunities for Sustainability

Big data and computing elevate global demand for electricity and hardware. This demand can be equally satisfied if the world transitions to cleaner energy sources, like solar. While technology does create some sustainability concerns, many of those concerns can be solved from the same source of the problem: technology.

Big Data for Predicting and Responding to Climate Change

Although big data does require more servers, it can also help scientists create climate models that help explore how the weather might evolve through climate change — leading to faster reaction times before problems worsen. Big data can enhance predictions for both short-term atmospheric conditions (weather) and how these conditions may affect the environment in the long term.

Enough information on isolated weather events can help scientists address climate change through:

  • Improved data collection: People can use big data to collect massive amounts of information in short periods of time. Scientists can use these capabilities to collect weather data, satellite images, and other information that may point toward concerning trends caused by climate change.
  • Focused climate models: Climate models rely on big data to simulate weather scenarios. Big data technology can pull information from every corner of the globe — from ocean currents to land surfaces — in ways that help activists identify how the weather might be evolving along with rising temperatures, more frequent natural disasters, and other climate change-related effects.
  • Improved accurate weather forecasting: AI technology, including machine learning, needs big data to assess sustainability-related risks. These platforms consider extreme weather events like storms or rising sea levels to improve forecast accuracy.

Although climate change is a phenomenon that has been building for centuries, these solutions created from big data may be comprehensive enough to give scientists the chance to counteract any damage that has been done.

AI for Reducing Emissions

Artificial intelligence and cloud solutions can help companies of all sizes reduce their emissions. Many use AI algorithms specifically designed to identify inefficiencies in solar power systems and other energy sources. Some companies use cloud solutions to monitor systems that use high levels of energy. Both of these processes allow company leaders to recognize opportunities for eliminating waste across the organization.

The same AI solutions can help you control costs. Consider solutions that offer predictive maintenance, a feature that proactively identifies where repairs might be needed. AI-powered carbon accounting features enable your organization to keep close tabs on total emissions. This information gives your company insight into areas of improvement. It can also help you build a roadmap for reducing overall carbon emissions.

Data Analytics for Humanitarian Development

Humanitarian activists can also use data analytics to help vulnerable populations, often in the farming sector to improve crop output and protect against a variety of threats.

Farmers have the capability with the takeaways from data analysis to monitor many of the factors that influence crop success — including moisture levels, seed dispersion, and irrigation. This feature allows farmers to better understand the recipe for consistently healthy crops, particularly when paired with solar power.

Other experts might use data analytics to control pests — both in agricultural and non-agricultural environments. Technology helps track pest migration and predict outbreaks of particular insect species. This information allows farmers to preserve pesticides. It also helps general populations understand how pests might move and spread disease or illness.

Technology for Adaptation

Emerging technologies constantly create new opportunities for environmental sustainability. Some new software platforms can identify areas people can adapt to climate change challenges. For example, some software programs can help clinicians monitor patient data remotely. This can help eliminate emissions otherwise generated from doctors’ offices and traveling patients — slowly reducing the negative effects of emissions on the climate.

Automation and AI are also creating new opportunities for better energy management. Passive automation allows companies to monitor their internal systems, identifying opportunities for conservation. This allows your company to save money on energy while reducing overall emissions.

What Needs to Be Done

Even though technology is paving the way within the environmental awareness movement, more work still needs to be done — especially if the demand for cloud computing and its corresponding use of energy rises. The world needs a clean-energy revolution to combat this rise in computing-related climate change.

It’s particularly important to use clean energy, like wind or solar when powering high-performance data centers. Additionally, optimizing these systems and knowing where to put them for maximum energy efficiency — such as understanding if a ground mount for a solar panel system is better than other methods.

Here are some additional regulatory or technological shifts to limit climate change:

  • Cultural awareness: Improved education surrounding energy alternatives and reduced pressure for businesses in adopting clean energy.
  • Green energy branding: Marketing that increasingly features clean energy as a reason why customers should purchase their products or services.
  • Government incentives: Federal programs that offer financial compensation or tax benefits for people who transition to solar or other clean energy options.
  • Energy-efficient hardware: Sustainable servers, cooling systems, and other hardware with technology that reduces energy consumption.
  • Better energy storage: Storage solutions like batteries or flywheels that store energy more efficiently. Companies can rely on batteries during core hours and draw energy from the power grid during non-peak times.

These and other optimizations provide companies with more tools to help limit their contributions to climate change. They can also provide advance notice whenever there are opportunities to reduce emissions or energy-related costs.