Google Cloud thinks sustainability starts with developers

It’s hard not to be a bit cynical about sustainability. These days everyone is touting some kind of carbon or emissions goal, and it feels hard to know what’s greenwashing and what’s real. Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Cloud Sustainability Lead Chris Talbott argued the benefits of sustainability efforts are, in fact, material. And while the shape of these efforts differ between verticals, it all starts with developers.

“We’re seeing a really interesting movement that’s accelerating quite a bit with developers and engineers considering carbon and sustainability characteristics similar to how they think about price, resiliency and performance when they’re building applications,” Talbott told Silverlinings.

“The Etsys and the Ubers of the world that we work with, down to the individual developer and engineer, they want tools that can help them make incremental sustainability decisions as part of their everyday job," he said.

Those tools might include features or options which help them understand and choose the best place to run a given workload from an emissions perspective. Another might focus on resource efficiency, identifying idle resources that are running and displaying the carbon emissions associated with those.

Google Cloud offers both these kinds of tools, with the former providing the option to choose low-carbon data center regions as part of the workflow that nearly every developer walks through. Similar features are available through Microsoft and Amazon Web Services (AWS). The former’s fall under its Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability initiative, while AWS offers a range of tools to help developers maximize cloud resources and track the carbon footprint of their cloud workloads.

In Google’s case, Talbott said many of the tools it offers developers are productized versions of what started as “internal initiatives.”

The prompt to choose a cleaner grid location for workloads, for instance, originated inside Google Cloud as part of the company’s goal of achieving 24/7 carbon free energy usage by 2030.

Why does it matter so much if cloud workloads are powered by carbon-free energy or not? Well, as MIT PhD candidate Steven Gonzalez Monserrate put it in a 2022 paper: “The Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. A single data center can consume the equivalent electricity of fifty thousand homes. At 200 terawatt hours (TWh) annually, data centers collectively devour more energy than some nation-states. Today, the electricity utilized by data centers accounts for 0.3 percent of overall carbon emissions.”

Vertical variables

Of course, developers are just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. Their efforts tie in to Google Cloud’s work with enterprises to apply cloud storage and computing to crunch numbers in ways that can help reduce emissions.

“There’s a couple of really unique things that the cloud offers companies pursing sustainability goals. One, the ability to collect and collate a really diverse set of data,” Talbott explained. “If you think about the kinds of data sets that are critically important to climate initiatives, they’re not typical enterprise data sets. They might often have satellite or geospatial data, they’ll have weather data, they’ll have climate data and you’re probably — as the customer — going to bring either operational data or financial data.”

The cloud, of course, can provide a data lake to compile all that information in one place and also allow enterprises to bring artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to bear to make sense of it all.

The final form of these collaborations, however, varies widely based on the industry Google Cloud is working with, Talbott said.

For instance, Google Cloud can help a company like Unilever pull together geospatial data and cross reference it with supply chain and climate data to better understand the risks (think fire or drought) that may impact some palm oil suppliers. That’s different from work it might do with a financial institution to help investors understand ESG risks to certain investments or the machine learning it might apply for a company like UPS or Lufthansa to help streamline delivery routes and flight paths to reduce carbon emissions. In UPS’ case, its work helped the logistics company reduce its gas consumption by 10 million gallons.

The number of such collaborations appears poised to increase drastically. In a recent global survey of nearly 1,500 corporate executives conducted by the Harris Poll at Google Cloud’s behest, 85% reported that customers have become increasingly vocal about their preference for sustainable brands. And while 91% of organizations have or are interested in pursuing a net zero target, only 41% are on track to or have already met that goal.