Policy recommendation: Responsible cloud

Promoting environmental sustainability

The world’s population is set to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, putting significant pressure on the world’s already constrained resources. Simply feeding this population will require a huge increase in productivity, with farmers needing to produce more 70 percent more food on less land, using less water and with a more precise application of fertilizer and inputs. We also face significant environmental challenges in relation to developing sustainable fuels, addressing the impact of our activities on the climate and maintaining the biodiversity of our ecosystems.

The opportunity

The computational potential of cloud-enabled, data-driven technologies like AI and data analytics provide fantastic potential in helping us address these challenges. By using the cloud to generate, gather and analyze data about our world, we will be able to discern new trends and design new solutions to help us build a cleaner, healthier world in which to live. Microsoft is excited about the potential of these tools and has funded the AI for Earth initiative with a view to helping explore the full range of possibilities re tech and our environment.

The challenge

But these new technologies also create their own challenges. As we continue to build out the datacenter infrastructure that lies at the heart of our global cloud, we use more energy. As one indicator of this energy use, Microsoft’s cloud activities consume nearly as much electrical power as a small American state, and in the next five years are estimated to use as much as a small European country. But these datacenters consumer more than energy; they also take up land and water. To operate in an ever more sustainable way, cloud providers continue to invest in research, development and infrastructure to harness the benefits of new clean technology, deploying new energy-efficient datacenter and building technology, using water risk monitors, and sourcing our energy from renewable sources.

The challenges that we face as a global company to operate in an ever-more sustainable way are the same challenges being tackled by governments across the world. One important aspect is the fundamental complexity of expanding the availability of clean energy. Each country has its own energy policy framework, fuel mix, market structure, legacy infrastructure and political priorities. In some countries, energy infrastructure is outdated and integration with renewable sources is difficult. In others, better alignment of policies with consumer demand for clean energy can facilitate direct purchasing and on-site generation of renewable energy and encourage greater transparency and competitive pricing that will help datacenters and their customers use energy more efficiently.

Beyond energy, countries must work together and take a modern approach to tackling the major challenges around the impact of our activity on our environment. This includes addressing issues around the warming of our climate and the impact of a growing population on our land and marine environments. In meeting these great challenges, we should look to use the best technologies at our disposal. As leading companies around the world utilize data- driven cloud technologies to improve their productivity and efficiency, we must also use these tools to help us improve our environment. This will require us to generate, collect and analyze more data about how our world works and how we interact with it, as well as opening up the significant amounts of data we already collect for deeper analysis.

Policy recommendations

Policies that promote sustainable practices and support renewable and clean energy are necessary to help address our environmental challenges. In addition, such policies can also provide countries with a competitive advantage in attracting technology firms and other investments that prioritize clean energy sourcing. As with other areas of the technology policy landscape, broad partnerships and collaboration between governments, businesses and nongovernmental communities will be essential to progress.

Steps that can expand access to clean energy and increase energy and resource efficiency include:

Increasing access to clean energy. Energy sources, infrastructure and policies vary greatly from country to country. In nations where renewable and other clean energy are viable options, governments should facilitate the development of new renewable energy sources by setting targets and providing incentives that promote the development and use of clean energy. Although policy design will vary by country, policy options may include renewable portfolio standards that require a certain amount of electricity to be generated by solar, wind, hydro and other zero-carbon sources; tax incentives for renewable and other cleaner energy; and pollution rules that encourage a shift to cleaner energy sources. In countries where these incentives already exist, governments can accelerate clean energy development by allowing direct energy investment by large consumers either on-site or through third parties and by facilitating partnerships between consumers and utilities to increase the availability of renewable energy in a cost-effective way.

energy efficiency and research and development. Because cloud-based services are generally more efficient than individual servers and datacenters, increased use of the cloud can drive energy efficiency gains — a recent study found that organizations can reduce energy use by 30 percent to 90 percent when they move from on-premises software to the cloud.[21] Governments can encourage these gains through policies and regulations that encourage migration to the cloud. Ongoing research and development is also critical to improve energy efficiency and develop new clean energy technologies. Governments should encourage investment in research and development and support public-private partnerships, particularly in new battery technologies that can store clean energy at scale and smart-grid technology that can use real-time information to balance power distribution. In addition, cloud services provide valuable tools for improving efficiency, such as reduced energy use in water management, public transportation and residential heating. Governments, academic research institutions and companies should continue to work together to use cloud computing technologies to discover and drive these kinds of efficiencies.

Promote transparency. Governments should increase transparency on pricing and consumption of energy and resource use. Government rules and incentives that increase public access to information about when and where energy demand is high, when and where energy supply is plentiful, and what sources are the most efficient, clean and affordable can reduce energy waste and accelerate clean energy development. The cloud can help the energy and other resource sectors organize, analyze and deliver this type of information so that producers and consumers can make more informed decisions and create more efficient operations. In addition, specific policies that require public reporting and transparency of energy consumption by buildings can help reduce energy use.

Accelerate energy efficiency through smart energy systems. The use of cloud-based smart systems for buildings and urban infrastructure can significantly reduce energy consumption. To effectively use these smart systems, governments should promote wide-scale broadband connectivity and the deployment of smart devices either directly or through supporting policies.

Open up existing data sets for analysis. Data-driven technologies like AI represent the most advanced analytical and problem-solving tools that humanity has to draw on. They represent immense potential in understanding and responding to our environmental challenges. They are, however, powered by data. The more data that is fed in, the more valuable the outputs.

Governments should look to make environmental and other relevant data sets more readily available for analysis. The steps taken by organizations such as the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make 8,000 data sets freely available are a positive lead to follow.

Fund the creation of new data sets for analysis. In addition to opening up currently available data, governments should continue to upgrade the capacity of our earth observation systems for sky, land and water environments. In addition to generating the additional data necessary to most effectively tackle our environmental challenges, the insights gained may have the potential to deliver additional scientific and commercial value.

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