Tackling Climate Change Challenges with Cloud Computing

Is cloud computing good for the environment? The convergence of software and sustainability suggests that it is.

By Jacob Gedetsis

By Jacob Gedetsis April 09, 2021

It’s difficult to save the trees when the rate of data doesn’t match the speed of chainsaws’ teeth.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists have used free and open satellite imagery from NASA’s Landsat missions to monitor and fight deforestation across the globe. Unfortunately, trees historically were felled before they had a chance to download and interpret the images, let alone act on them.

With the help of cloud computing, conservationists now have the tools they need to keep pace and fight. 

“For the first time, the data really reflects the pace and the scale that deforestation happens on the ground so it becomes much more actionable,” Tara O’Shea, director of forest programs at Earth-imaging company Planet, said in an interview with Eco-Business

To the environmental activists who’ve spent decades thirsting for information, it’s frustratingly tardy. In some ways, however, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Technologically, cloud computing has reached critical mass. And with it, cloud-enabled automation, edge computing and machine learning, all of which are bringing new speed, scale and sophistication to environmental advocacy. 

Simultaneously, policy has reached a similar tipping point, the latest sign of which is the United States’ decision to rejoin the ambitious Paris Agreement, an international climate treaty whose goal is achieving a climate-neutral world by reducing greenhouse gas emissions across myriad industries and activities, including computing.

That technology and policy have crescendoed at precisely the same moment has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to significantly alter the course of climate change. To understand how, consider the impact of three cloud-powered capabilities on the environment: remote sensing, machine learning and server virtualization.

Remote Sensing Protects Rainforests

Just one day after the United States rejoined the Paris Agreement, an international study mapped carbon fluctuations in unprecedented detail. The team of researchers, including NASA scientists, integrated datasets from remote sensors on the ground, in the air and in space in order to create a global framework that consistently estimates carbon flux in forests around the world.

"The way this was set up is in a cloud computing platform," Lola Fatoyinbo, a scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release

“If there is a new dataset that comes out that is much better than was previously available, you can just go in and swap it. This used to be something that took years to do, and now you could do it in a few hours.”

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For years, scientists have used remote sensing to acquire data and study physical, chemical and biological impacts on the environment. Now, they can tap into on-demand networks of cloud-connected sensors—including satellites in space, drones in the air and field-based wireless sensors on the ground—that collect environmental observations and measurements in real time.

“There’s no question that the revolution in remote sensing technology in recent years has already had a dramatic impact on forest management throughout the tropics,” Frances Seymou, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said in an interview with NASA. 

“These systems have changed the politics of forest management both within and between countries. They have empowered environmental activists and indigenous peoples to make visible what is really going on in the world’s forests, and how it diverges from what is legal and sustainable.”

On a smaller scale, researchers and tech companies are enabling everyday users to harness the power of remote sensing via their smartphones, which can be paired with cloud-connected portable sensors that monitor temperature, humidity and airborne pollutants.

Machine Learning Enables Better Decision Making

Remote sensing alone is powerful. But when it’s paired with machine learning algorithms that can automatically ingest data, analyze it and convert it into actionable intelligence, it’s revolutionary.

Take Planet’s cloud-based imagery and analytics platform. Built for speed and flexibility, it allows researchers to quickly and efficiently analyze remote sensing data at scale. Planet’s algorithm automatically recognizes forests, then stitches together high-resolution 2D satellite imagery of forested regions to furnish local governments and academic researchers with reliable and consistent geospatial models.

In partnership with Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative and Kongsberg Satellite Services, Planet and European aerospace giant Airbus are offering universal access to high-frequency satellite imagery of the world's most important and most at-risk tropical forests. This partnership gives scientists and policymakers access to vast amounts of data that they can use in their own analytical work environments.

For example, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) plugs satellite data into the cloud-based analysis platform SEPAL in order to track land use and deforestation. SEPAL allows users to query and process satellite data quickly from anywhere in the world with the help of cloud-based supercomputers that use machine learning techniques to process new and historical satellite data for the purpose of change detection. This enables nations to develop unique solutions to practical problems. 

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In Somalia, for example, FAO marries satellite imagery with artificial intelligence inside SEPAL in order to power the Somalia Water and Land Information Management (SWALIM) program, which monitors natural resources in Somalia to ensure informed decision making about land management and utilization.

“The use of multi-temporal and multi-sensor remote sensing, coupled with machine learning techniques, is helping us to better assess the impact of natural disasters on the livelihood of people, particularly in remote areas,” Ugo Leonardi, chief technical advisor of the SWALIM program, told FAO.

Environmental stakeholders can use the same techniques to monitor climate change and stage interventions where and when they’re needed. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, used FAO data to build a National Forest Monitoring System (NFMS) that provides information to scientists, investors and governments to help them make informed decisions that reduce the elimination and degradation of forests.

“NFMS tools contribute to improving the management of our forests so that we may reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” Benjamin Toirambe, general secretary of DRC’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, told FAO.

Server Virtualization Reduces IT’s Impact

Clearly, technology is contributing to environmental solutions. However, technology also is contributing to environmental challenges. In fact, climate change experts warn that its increasing output is giving the technology sector a larger carbon footprint.

Case in point: A 2020 study by researchers at Ontario’s McMaser University found that the information and communications technology sector will account for nearly 14% of the world’s carbon footprint by 2040, up from 1.5% in 2007.

The rapid growth of cloud computing is driving data centers to consume about 2% of global electricity today and that could rise to nearly 8% by 2030, according to research by Huawei Technologies Sweden. 

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So is cloud computing good for the environment, really? 

Even when you consider the impact of data centers, yes. It still can be. A February 2021 study by IDC, for example, found that cloud computing could prevent nearly 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2021 and 2024 by shifting workloads to locations around the globe, enabling the use of renewable resources such as solar and wind power.

The key is server virtualization, which allows for consolidated data centers that require less physical equipment to run large workloads, thereby leading to a smaller carbon footprint and less end-of-life IT waste. Additionally, services like pay-per-use and self-service cloud-based infrastructures allow customers to consume computing resources only when they need them.

“The idea of ‘green IT’ has been around now for years, but the direct impact hyperscale computing can have on carbon dioxide emissions is getting increased notice from customers, regulators and investors, and it’s starting to factor into buying decisions,” Cushing Anderson, program vice president at IDC, said in a press release

“For some, going ‘carbon-neutral’ will be achieved using carbon offsets, but designing data centers from the ground up to be carbon-neutral will be the real measure of contribution. And for advanced cloud providers, matching workloads with renewable energy availability will further accelerate their sustainability goals.”

Wherever it’s deployed, technology can do things humans can’t. By doing good for the planet and also being good for the planet, cloud computing might be able to make one of the biggest dents yet in the global climate crisis.

Jacob Gedetsis is a contributing writer. His work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Post Standard and The Plain Dealer, among others. Find him on Twitter at @JacobGedetsis.

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