During the Confederation of British Industry’s “Achieving Net-Zero” online conference earlier this month, director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn talked about two major problems we face today: Covid-19, the biggest health crisis in living memory; and climate change, the defining challenge of the modern era.

The disruption caused by the former has meant the latter has slipped down the agenda for many businesses as they retreat into ‘survival mode’. But it has not been forgotten. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken us on a journey where preserving public health has had to take precedence over jobs, commerce and the broader economy. People are now taking a much more active interest in what companies represent beyond profits.

Had this pandemic hit just 10 or 15 years ago, it would be a very different story. Technology, in particular cloud, has proven at least part of the solution for businesses across every industry. It offers not only systems resilience and flexibility, but also acts as a catalyst for innovation and growth. And, with the right approach, cloud can help redouble businesses’ efforts on tackling climate change too. Accenture’s new ‘Green Behind Cloud’ report has found that migrations to the public cloud can reduce global CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year – the equivalent of taking 22 million cars off the road.

The magnitude of this reduction can go a long way in meeting climate change commitments, particularly for data intensive businesses. These are just some of the steps businesses can take to kickstart their journey to getting greener with cloud:

Select with purpose

The first step towards adopting a sustainable cloud-first journey begins with selecting a carbon-thoughtful provider. Cloud operators set different corporate commitments towards sustainability, which in turn determine how they plan, build, power, operate, and eventually retire their data centers.

Even though many providers have focused on driving down energy consumption to standard benchmarks, emissions can still widely differ. Business leaders must research thoroughly, thinking about the providers carbon impact – and its knock-on effect on their own.

Build with ambition

The second step is all about ambition and how bold companies are on their journey towards a sustainable cloud. It’s a simple equation when it comes to achieving a sustainable cloud journey: the greater the ambition, the greater the benefits.

Building with ambition doesn’t only come with ‘green’ benefits. Drivers like greater workload

flexibility, better server utilization rates, and more energy-efficient infrastructure all make public clouds more cost efficient than enterprise-owned data centers.

This ambition falls into three levels, so business leaders must take stock of where their company is and evaluate which is the best approach for them. As with many things, one size doesn’t fit all:

  1. Infrastructure as service (IaaS) migrations: For those that want to take a more cautious approach, they can opt for the lowest level of cloud integration – a basic migration from their existing infrastructure without a major redesign. Our analysis of the largest public cloud service providers shows average enterprise-owned-to-cloud migrations can lead to an impressive 65 percent energy reduction and 84 percent carbon reduction.
  2. Sustainable software engineering practices: For those looking to go further, companies can reduce application energy consumption by up to 50 times when selecting appropriate programming language for the task. In dealing with AI, which is typically hosted on the cloud, choices related to accuracy can also make a big difference in energy use. Accenture found that while training a simple AI model for identifying flowers, increasing model accuracy from 96 percent to 98 percent resulted in a nearly 7X jump in energy consumption.
  3. Application optimization for the fabric of the cloud: Customization requires designing applications to take full advantage of on-demand computing, higher asset utilization rates, and dynamic allocation of computing resources. By fully embracing the potential of what cloud can offer, and designing applications specifically for cloud, companies can achieve 98 percent carbon emission reductions.

Innovate further

Finally, companies must use cloud as an opportunity and platform to continually innovate. Cloud is critical to unlocking greater financial, societal and environmental benefits through cloud-based circular operations and sustainable products and services. The circular economy is where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, the maximum value is extracted from it whilst it’s in use, and then products and materials are recovered and regenerated at the end of each lifecycle. Cloud consumers can use cloud-based platforms to trace upstream and downstream value chains more rigorously and to recover value from unused materials and industrial waste streams. For example, Banyan Nation is India’s first vertically integrated plastics recycling company, using mobile and cloud-based technology platforms. They collaborate with the informal supply chain of plastic and proprietary plastic cleaning technology to create new quality granules which can be used for packaging of new products.

In today’s digitally driven environment, cloud has quickly moved from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have”. Now is the time for businesses to make sure their sustainability goals don’t stall, or even worse drop off the board agenda, due to Covid-19. The UK business community has a clear responsibility to help build back a stronger – and greener – future, and the cloud has the power to help us achieve both.