Q&A: Google Cloud says sustainability efforts have accelerated and made a difference beyond the data center
As the pandemic forced many people to rely on the digital economy to deliver food, watch movies and work remotely from home, the environmental costs of these day-to-day transactions, conducted in energy-guzzling data centers, have recently come into focus.
How much should hyperscale operators like Google Cloud do, along with organizations that are increasingly dependent on the cloud to run their businesses? Can they improve the way data is processed so that it has less of an impact on the environment?
Sherie Ng, who joined Google Cloud last month as country director for Singapore and Malaysia, told Techgoondu that the mood has shifted in recent years in Asia-Pacific, where organizations view sustainability as a strategic imperative that must be measurable.
Google Cloud itself has embarked on a zero-carbon target by 2030, including initiatives in Singapore and Malaysia, such as using solar energy to power data centers here, she says in this month’s Q&A.
Q: Google Cloud’s goal to be carbon-free by 2030 is well known. Can you briefly name some efforts in Singapore and Malaysia that will contribute to this?
A: We first want to address the common misconception that an IT strategy without the Internet is a future pursuit. In reality, companies that have moved from on-premise data centers to the cloud have already made progress in reducing their carbon footprint.
Taking it one step further, the infrastructure and services Google Cloud provides to businesses, including those in Singapore and Malaysia, already have a zero carbon footprint.
Today, we operate the cleanest cloud in the industry, as Google is the first major company to achieve carbon neutrality since 2007, getting our annual energy consumption 100 percent from renewable sources every year since 2017.
As our next and most ambitious goal to date, we aim to be fully powered by 24/7 carbon-free energy in all our data centers, cloud regions and campuses worldwide by 2030.
To achieve this goal, we need to move beyond the net-zero model of “emissions and offsets” and instead aim for “absolute zero,” where we don’t emit carbon from our operations in the first place. Fixing this is not only critical for Google and our Google Cloud customers, but also essential for the full transition from power grids to carbon-free energy.
We remain focused on achieving our goal along three parallel tracks: buying carbon-free energy, advancing new technologies and advocating for better public policies.
In Singapore, we worked with Sembcorp on locally produced clean energy to support the operations of our data centers and cloud region.
Our first renewable energy agreement in Southeast Asia includes the purchase of surplus energy generated from 500 social rental apartments with solar rooftop installations. The generated solar energy goes directly into the electricity supply of our operations, thanks to a unique three-party partnership with both the energy retailer (Sembcorp Power) and the solar developer (Sembcorp Solar).
Sustainability has been a core value for Google since our inception, and we are committed to doing our part to move the world closer to a zero-carbon future for all. This is a first step and we want to do more in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.
Q: Do you think Southeast Asia or Asia-Pacific in general is moving fast enough to make data centers more efficient or even carbon neutral or zero in the future?
A: In every conversation I’ve had with customer boards, CEOs, and CTOs since joining Google Cloud, sustainability has become a strategic imperative.
The consensus is that it’s not a CSR program, but one that requires board-level metrics and KPIs – this alone is a substantial move from a few years ago, when sustainability was barely on the corporate agenda.
The business leaders I’ve spoken to recognize three things. First, climate change is no longer a distant threat – it is local and personal, and we need urgent and meaningful solutions to meet this pressing challenge.
Second, offering sustainability practices is increasingly part of preserving the loyalty of customers, partners and employees. Finally, we must work together to help disadvantaged communities and those disproportionately affected by climate change, including our future generations
In a diverse region like Southeast Asia with countries in different stages of development and maturity, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
This reaffirms our commitment to creating custom tools that take into account emissions in our cloud and outside of our cloud, whether it’s gaining insight into a customer’s full value chain carbon footprint or quantifying its carbon footprint. environmental impact of migrating their data domain to the cloud.
We also bring our ecosystem partners together to create targeted industry solutions that solve customers’ most relevant sustainability challenges. One example is a solution that allows retailers, manufacturers and other logistics companies to build a digital twin – a virtual representation of their physical supply chain – by orchestrating data from various sources for a holistic view of the emissions and energy consumption of their suppliers, inventories, and other information.
A global logistics provider has used such solutions from Google Cloud to optimize fleet routing and reduce annual fuel consumption by approximately 38 million liters, saving US$400 million in cost.
Another example is JB Cocoa, a company headquartered in Malaysia that is one of the world’s largest producers of cocoa ingredients.
JB Cocoa has partnered with Google Cloud to increase transparency in the supply chain and ensure that the cocoa beans are sourced and purchased from sustainable cocoa farms, before being used to produce finished products such as cocoa butter, cocoa powder and cocoa liquor for environmentally conscious consumers.
Q: Hyperscalers like Google can lead the way in sustainability efforts. At the same time, how do you convince other stakeholders, such as your cloud customers, to use their energy consumption more efficiently, for example by optimizing the use of resources or accepting higher temperatures in data centers?
A: It’s not about trying to push our customers in a responsible direction. Many companies are already committed to sustainability and seeking help, so helping them make that transition is an innovation opportunity for Google Cloud.
With increasing demands for ESG reporting, companies are looking for ways to show employees, boards and customers their progress towards climate goals. Working with clients such as Atos, Etsy, HSBC, L’Oréal and Salesforce, we’ve built Carbon Footprint so a company can monitor its gross cloud emissions over time.
Available for free to any Google Cloud customer, this tool provides IT teams and developers with metrics that can help them reduce their carbon footprint. Our detailed calculation methodology has been published so that auditors and reporting teams can verify that their cloud emissions data complies with the guidelines of the GHG protocol.
One of the low-hanging fruits of reducing gross emissions is locating and removing unattended projects. Last August, we used our Active Assist tool to analyze the collected data from all customers on our platform and found that more than 600,000 kg of Co2e had been associated with projects it recommended for clearance or recovery.
This led us to add a new sustainability impact category to our Active Assist Recommender tool, expanding the original core pillars of cost, performance, security and manageability.
The recommender uses machine learning (ML) to identify projects likely to be abandoned based on API and network activity, billing, cloud service usage, and other cues with a high degree of confidence. By removing these projects, customers not only reduce carbon emissions, but can also reduce costs and mitigate security risks.
An IDG study commissioned by Google shows that 90 percent of IT departments have already made sustainability a priority, but building more sustainable applications and infrastructure isn’t easy. There are technical challenges and the perception that climate action is costly.
With every tool we make available to help companies measure and reduce their carbon footprint, Google Cloud is reducing the barriers they face when adopting more sustainable technology.
Q: Even AI, which often helps us make the most of resources, has an environmental footprint. How can we use AI to drive sustainability efforts in the future without worsening the situation?
A: To make IT operations greener, Google has designed highly efficient Tensor Processing Units – the AI chips behind our advances in ML – and equipped all of our data centers with high-performance servers.
Since 2014, we have been using ML to automatically optimize cooling in our data centers. Smart temperature and light controls have been deployed to further reduce the energy consumption of our data centers.
Other examples of AI and ML helping to reduce the environmental footprint of IT operations include Active Assist Recommender, mentioned earlier, carbon intelligent computing, and harnessing next-generation geothermal energy.
Researchers have found that global data center electricity consumption has remained virtually unchanged over the past decade, even as computing needs increased by 550 percent. Google is at the forefront of this trend, delivering about seven times as much computing power from the same amount of electrical power as we did in 2016.
Many customers are then faced with tough questions about how their business affects the natural environment today and how it will be affected by climate change in the future.
Over the past year, we’ve worked with a number of organizations to combine Google Earth Engine technology with tools such as BigQuery and our Cloud AI Platform to develop new solutions for responsible resource sourcing, sustainable land management and carbon reduction.
For example, Unilever is partnering with Google Cloud to leverage cloud computing, satellite imagery and AI to get a more holistic view of the forests, water cycles and biodiversity that intersect the supply chain. This raises sustainable procurement standards for suppliers and brings Unilever closer to its goal of ending deforestation and restoring nature.
Earth Engine enables companies to monitor, track and forecast changes to the Earth’s surface caused by extreme weather or man-made activities, helping customers reduce operational costs, mitigate and better manage risk, and become more resilient to threats from climate change.