'Dirty' Aussie clouds targeted in NZ climate change submissions

'Dirty' Aussie clouds targeted in NZ climate change submissions

Australia-based cloud services targeted due to high levels of coal generation

Yallourn power station is the third largest in Victoria.

Yallourn power station is the third largest in Victoria.

Credit: Marcus Wong

Questions are being asked of allegedly "dirty" offshore cloud providers -- and of government policies that encourages their use.

Submissions to the The Climate Change (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill, now before Parliament, reference the migration of hosting and cloud services to offshore providers, particularly those served from Australia, as a climate threat.

"The aviation industry is very dirty in regard to greenhouse gas emissions," wrote Nelson builder Benjamin Hyslop.

"Unfortunately, IT storage facilities and cloud providers are dirtier. They often pay no tax in NZ, yet sell more products to New Zealanders than domestic producers. This is unacceptable. They need exposing and charging for their dirty ways."

Generally it is accepted that cloud services are more energy efficient and more sustainable than hosting hardware on premise. But on the face of it these benefits could disappear if you swap your New Zealand data centre for an Australian-based cloud service.

The two market leading cloud platforms, Amazon's AWS and Microsoft Azure, are served to New Zealand users out of Australia, which generates most of its electricity from burning brown and black coal.

Electricity from renewable sources is just 15 per cent of the mix across the ditch, according to Australia's Department of Environment and Energy.

In contrast, while New Zealand has a high emissions footprint from other sources, more than 90 per cent of the country's electricity is generated from renewables.

Submitter Oliver Lineham put some numbers around that while suggesting the public sector should be required to consider emissions as part of its decision making process.

"Consideration of emissions impact should become an ordinary part of formal decision-making -- both policy and in operations," Lineham wrote. 

"This should not be limited to decisions with an obvious significant emissions impact. For example, a common trend is the move of IT systems from NZ hosting (electricity carbon intensity of 107g CO2e per kWh) to “cloud” providers in Australia (electricity carbon intensity of 750g CO2e per kWh). 

"I am yet to see evidence of any agency considering the emissions impact of such a move." 

A Microsoft spokesperson, however, referred Reseller News to the company's policy on carbon neutrality, which it claims to have achieved since 2012.

"We've been setting a price on carbon that is charged across the company since 2012," a company website said.

"With the funds collected from this internal carbon tax, we have reduced energy consumption, increased our purchasing of clean energy, and invested in offset projects for the carbon we can’t reduce or replace. 

"In 2017, Microsoft pledged to reduce its operational carbon emissions 75 percent by 2030 and is on target to achieve this goal."

Google has implemented similar measures and both companies received "A" ratings for their efforts by the UK-based Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) for 2018.

Amazon and its AWS business, though, appear to be lagging even as staff and shareholders call for more transparency and action.

For several years Amazon has received an "F" rating after refusing to share information with the CDP, which rates nearly 5,000 other large corporations.

In March, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos committed to disclosing the company's carbon footprint -- but not through the CDP. A shareholder vote in June to make the company report through the CDP was defeated on the urging of Amazon management.

The next month it was reported that AWS had applied to the Australian government's clean energy regulator to prevent the release of its energy consumption and emissions data, claiming this could reveal "trade secrets".

Publication of these data is mandatory for companies that produced at least 50 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases during the year.

An AWS spokesperson, however, argued that cloud computing was, in fact, cleaner than the alternatives.

"Our scale allows us to achieve higher resource utilisation and energy efficiency than the typical on-premises data centre," the spokesperson said.

"In addition to the environmental benefits inherently associated with running applications in the cloud, AWS is committed to achieving 100 per cent renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure.”

AWS exceeded 50 per cent its renewable energy usage for 2018 and was "well on its way" towards 60 per cent, the spokesperson said.

"A typical large-scale cloud provider achieves approximately 65 per cent server utilisation rates versus 15 per cent on-premises, which means when companies move to the cloud, they typically provision fewer than a quarter of the servers they would on-premises.

"In addition, a typical on-premises data centre is 29 per cent less efficient in their use of power compared to a typical large-scale cloud provider that uses world-class facility designs, cooling systems, and workload-optimised equipment."

Adding these together, AWS said, customers only need 16 per cent of the power as compared to on-premises infrastructure, representing an 84 per cent reduction in the amount of power required.

Large-scale cloud providers (AWS included) also use a power mix that is 28 per cent less carbon intense than the global average.

Combining the fraction of energy required with a less carbon-intense power mix, AWS said customers can end up with a reduction in carbon emissions of 88 per cent by moving to the cloud.

In New Zealand, the government's lead digital policy and procurement agency, the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), has negotiated commercial agreements with major cloud service providers on behalf of government agencies and also implemented a "cloud first" policy.

These agreements provide agencies with access to cloud services using a single price book and standard terms and conditions. 

In addition, a new public cloud marketplace will act as a one-stop-shop for agencies to access a wider range of cloud services.

DIA has been asked for comment.

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