Clean cloud is critical to sustainability, national security imperatives

What may not be apparent at surface level is that emissions from information and communications technology are significantly contributing to the carbon footprin...

Amidst growing confidence that government can fuel a green recovery, the Biden administration set a bold vision for a climate change and infrastructure agenda. The plan aligns with the National Defense Strategy and comes with specific direction to put the climate crisis at the center of foreign policy and national security. The impetus for action is driven not only by global macro level impacts to foreign policy, but also by internal studies that directly impact the Defense Department and its readiness with missions, operational plans, and installations, which is acknowledged by our new Defense secretary and will be addressed in part by a Climate Change Working Group.

However, what may not be apparent at surface level is that emissions from information and communications technology are significantly contributing to the carbon footprint and broader climate change. If left unchecked, the IT related contribution will surpass the entire aviation and shipping industries and total 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. The UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report suggests the data center portion of the industry alone, serving big data and cloud computing, accounts for 3% of the electrical supply globally. On the other hand, the industry holds promise in being part of the solution.

To further explore, let’s review the current state, the goals we should set to demonstrate progress, and the near-term actions to drive impact.

Solving the problems at hand

First, consider the macro level climate change problem.

According to the Economist, the current administration’s plan sets a 30 year goal to decarbonize the economy by 2050 and to make electricity carbon-free by 2035.

One of the key problems faced in meeting these audacious, long-term ambitions, is the lack of more attainable “micro” goals. Such intermediary steps will serve to uncover gaps between current and future state, helping us to measure the effort and investment necessary to go the distance. Bill Gates speaks to this in his recent publication, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, by establishing the concept of mechanisms like “Green Premiums” where we can identify the price disparity of fossil fuels versus clean power sources, or even areas where no technology exists yet to replace conventional methods.

Second, consider the information and communications technology contribution to the problem.

Using the 30 Year Plan and sustainability, more broadly, as a North Star, we can backwards plan against the existing roadmap of digital and technology transformation for both enterprise and mission-centric needs. Building sustainability metrics into technology transformation projects will give a view of incremental progress against the macro level goals we have set.

A key goal, at a more targeted level, may include measuring progress against implementation of carbon neutral data centers and clouds with zero emissions energy sources, as well as reduction in the total physical footprint. In addition to the source of energy, the operational efficiency of energy consumed for each facility is a critical measurement (e.g. power usage effectiveness, or PUE).

Third, consider the threat to U.S. national security and the military stemming from these problems

Studies show a direct impact to the DoD and its readiness with missions, operational plans and installations. As such, we must understand the resulting second and third order effects and establish metrics that track installation resiliency and operational viability of military operations in conditions that are increasingly degraded or changing as a result of climate effects. Good use cases can include installations and facilities performance metrics that account for performance and sustainability (e.g. drought, flooding, wildfires), infrastructure project management that addresses risks associated with changing weather patterns, and fleet management that associates military platforms with sustainability metrics, resource scarcity, logistics and mission support, and global supply chain considerations. Risk management, a critical pillar of DoD mission planning and operations, can then factor in these metrics into the operational environment.

Actions to make technology part of the long term solution.

Action 1 – Adopt a fast follower model after industry leaders in the cloud. Government agencies should follow industry leaders in rationalizing their technology and digital footprints in line with hyperscale providers that have solved the efficiency problem at scale. Over the past two decades, Google’s data center program, which serves its enterprise and cloud offering, has set the standard with its approach to data center efficiency at industry leading benchmarks.  Moreover, it measures progress against a goal of having operating data centers and campuses on carbon-free energy, 24/7, by 2030. Google has already started to work with government agencies in this regard, but the federal government can take action at scale and take early successes with the Federal Data Center Consolidation program and Cloud Strategy to the next level by integrating explicit climate change considerations. Similarly, the other two key hyperscale cloud service providers, Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, each maintain similar profiles for data center efficiency and sustainability goals.

Action 2 – Leverage the technology, data & AI assets you have to generate insights that unlock climate change solutions. The DoD’s latest Digital Modernization Strategy and Data Strategy calls first and foremost for treating data as a strategic asset, and climate change is a priority use case to apply against these principles. As we enable the clean cloud, we can then build analytical and AI-driven use cases on top of this green infrastructure to generate sustainability insights and opportunities much broader than technology. The potential overall impact of applying AI to corporate sustainability amounts to $1.3 trillion – $2.6 trillion in value generated through additional revenues and cost savings by 2030, according to Boston Consulting Group.

Action 3 – Take a prioritized, use case driven approach to mission enablement within a backdrop of sustainability. Mission enablement should always be the priority, whether it is a large scale capital investment in facilities and installations, or consolidation of the global data center landscape. A prioritized, use case driven approach should be taken that indexes toward what ensures mission resiliency, the best investment portfolio that brings the value forward, and what future proofs the tech functions of the future. Within each initiative, we can then build in the appropriate transparency on climate change metrics and track progress against our goals, continuously improving based upon those results, and creating a feedback loop back to enterprise data and analytics tools for a complete view of the sustainability profile. This profile can also continue to inform mission planning and resiliency against potential impacts.

Matthew Leybold is an Associate Director with Boston Consulting Group out of New York City and leads the Cloud and IT Infrastructure topic, serving Public Sector and Financial Institutions industry verticals for BCG Platinion North America.

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