Clouds, Carbon and Code

The environmental impact of our increasingly software defined lives.

Clouds, Carbon and Code
“The Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry”

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate in The Staggering Ecological Impacts of Computation and the Cloud

That’s a pretty stark statement. In a modern culture where the Swedes even coined a word, flygskam or flight shame, somehow we are able to ignore the environment impact of our increasing reliance upon cloud compute. You can’t catch a flight but it’s fine to scroll through cat pictures for an hour a day on Insta. Got it.

I was going to use this as opportunity to have a swipe at the crypto challenging levels of compute used by the current AI hype cycle but according to a paper published in Nature it may actually produce less CO2. Using AI to produce images and text rather than a humans results in less CO2 emissions (even including the model training)! … though it is a very SkyNet type assumption that rather relies on the humans that would have produced the text or images no longer producing any CO2 if they aren’t producing any output.

According to some reports the rate of increase in CO2 is better than expected due to increased efficiency. My bet is we can thank our colleagues at AMD, ARM and other improvement in hardware for that. 

I can’t remember the last time I saw any advancement in software engineering that resulted in fewer CPU cycles to do the same work. We’re just constantly adding layer upon layer of abstraction and writing anything we can in JavaScript. (Sometimes even in HPC!)

If we’re serious about climate change, then surely this needs to be addressed too? Unless of course we’re just relying on somehow having carbon neutral electricity magically appear to power our clouds.

Maybe everyone should be forced to learn C before they’re allowed to write a line of code…. Surely even a cursory understanding of what your code might end up doing at something close to machine level will help?