Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage: Calculate Emissions of Data Centers

Kim Williamson, Author 8 Billion TreesWritten by Kim Williamson

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 15, 2024

Woman using a laptop wonders about the carbon footprint of cloud storage and how to measure cloud data center emissions, and what is the cloud footprint, wondering if there was somewhere that has internet emissions explained.

The carbon footprint of cloud storage has become a topic of keen interest and debate as the industry has skyrocketed over the last decades.

But many people ask, how does the cloud have a carbon footprint? And, how can it be calculated?

The cloud is hosted within thousands of data centers, which are elaborate supercomputers with incredible computation capacity.

But, these data centers need lots and lots of both energy and water, and energy can generate harmful emissions and the fresh water use is a huge drain on resources and contributes to the carbon footprint of cloud storage.

By breaking down the various components of data centers, it is possible to calculate the carbon footprint of cloud storage.

What Is the Cloud Storage Emissions?

What was life before the cloud? It was a person waiting at a telegraph office for their message to be encoded and transmitted across the wire.

It was thousands and thousands of square feet of filing cabinets, full of medical records, newspapers, family histories, and police reports. It was disposable cameras, film rolls, closets, and bookshelves crammed with photo albums.

It was vinyl records, gramophones, and Walkmans. It was address books, datebooks, and post-it notes… everywhere.

What is the cloud? Life in the modern world is made possible by digital technology, and digital technology is rapidly changing to keep up with the frantic pace of population growth and energy consumption.

A graphic that shows the percentage of global data center emissions by country.

The internet – a global network of interconnected computers through which data are transferred – is the crux upon which the digital world relies.

And the cloud? The cloud is the internet’s backbone.

A 2021 article in Scientific American defines the cloud as a system of millions of computer servers, hard drives, fiber-optic cables, and signal routers creating and supporting interconnectivity.31

The cloud is a vast network providing access to services and software online that consumers can use without the need to download or install onto a computer.

What Is Cloud Computing?

‘Cloud computing’ is the term used to describe the way the cloud functions.

It means that any person with internet access can use the computing power of global data centers to store and process data instead of owning and maintaining their own servers36

A graphic that shows different aspects of cloud computing such as Saas, PaaS, IaaS, Private, Public, and Hybrid.

The primary cloud-based services include:

Software as a Service (SaaS)

SaaS is a web-based software that can be used over the internet on-demand and pay-as-you-go with no download required. Some well-known examples include Freshdesk, Slack, DropBox, Canva, Shopify, Google Docs, and Zoom.

Note that these are finished applications that any internet user can access.18,28

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

PaaS is most useful for developers looking to build new services or applications or businesses looking for better ways to manage. Cloud computing provides a web-based platform for this so that developers can focus exclusively on their product.

So while PaaS does not present a finished application, it does present the necessary tools for individuals who want to create their own software. Some examples include Amazon Web Services Elastic Beanstalk, Google App Engine, and Apache Stratos.6

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

IaaS, also known as Hardware as a Service (HaaS), is even more nondescript than PaaS. With IaaS, internet users have access to data center storage space.

The virtual storage capacity provided through cloud computing services provides the support needed for PaaS and SaaS. In other words, IaaS is more narrow than the other two service categories.

Examples include Amazon Web Services, Google Compute Engine, IBM Cloud, and Microsoft Azure.19

Exploring How Cloud Storage Works: Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage

One of the primary functions of the cloud is its seemingly infinite capacity to store data.

Through the cloud, incredible amounts of data can be stored remotely on servers hosted by cloud providers.

This can be a single individual’s data, in a familiar form such as iTunes or Google Photos, but it can also be the vast data associated with corporate infrastructure, like software and databases. Every internet user relies on the cloud in some capacity, but most people who enjoy its benefits don’t know exactly how cloud storage works.5

There are 4 cloud storage types that can suit various purposes. These are:

Public Cloud Storage

The public cloud storage model is a great option in the majority of cases.

Because public cloud storage is typically leased through large hyperscale data centers run by companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, it is a very affordable option that can be adjusted to fit the computing needs of a company or individual.

Public cloud storage offers easy, broad access to stored data. The best part is that there is no hardware maintenance for customers as all hardware is maintained by a third-party company.5

Private Cloud Storage

The private cloud storage model is network-specific. It requires physical infrastructure either on-premises or through a cloud provider able to create a private cloud.

Connections are private and protected by a personal or company firewall, meaning increased security. This type of cloud storage is sometimes called internal cloud storage or enterprise cloud storage.

Private cloud storage is usually more costly and may require a dedicated IT staff to maintain. It is often preferred for large organizations, such as financial institutions.5

Hybrid Cloud Storage

Exactly as the name implies, hybrid cloud storage is a combination of public and private cloud storage. Choosing a hybrid model gives businesses the ability to store more sensitive data on private cloud servers while storing regular data in the public cloud where it can be accessed with more ease.

The model permits the most flexibility, avoiding the extra cost of an entirely private cloud while retaining the option for select information.5

Community Cloud Storage

Most prominent in healthcare and education settings, community cloud storage develops when a private cloud provider service is extended to meet the needs of an entire network of related institutions, such as a group of hospitals or a school system. This facilitates collaboration and record sharing while ensuring the security of patient confidentiality and minor confidentiality.

The community cloud is preferable to the private cloud in these cases because the networks are larger and more people require access to information.5

Anytime that data is sent beyond the scope of personal computers and storage devices such as hard drives to data center services, the cloud is being put to work.

How Much Cloud Data Storage Is Available Worldwide?

Although the word “cloud” conjures the idea of something nebulous and infinite, cloud data storage is exactly equal to the size of the physical infrastructure that supports it. In 2020, global data generation reached 64.2 zettabytes (ZB), though most of this was temporary data.

The actual installed capacity for 2020 was 6.7 ZB.

Close up view of a cloud data storage server inside cloud storage facility.

(Image: Colossus Cloud47)

Note: A zettabyte is equal to 1,000 exabytes, which is equal to 1,000 petabytes, which is equal to 1,000 terabytes, and so on.

Thus, one ZB is equal to 1 billion terabytes, which in turn is 1 billion kilobytes. This number is expected to continue increasing drastically in coming years and is projected to more than double by 2025.4

How Much Data Storage Do I Use and How Much Do I Need? (Data Storage Calculator)

Data storage calculators available online can help individuals and businesses determine how much data storage capacity they need. While 2 to 4 GB is sufficient RAM for most personal computers, those used in professional capacities may require up to 16 GB of RAM to sustain workloads.30

But what about cloud data storage?

The great news is that public cloud storage is scalable, meaning that the most basic storage plan can be upgraded as needed to meet an individual or company’s needs. So while a casual internet user can probably squeeze by with basic, free storage such as the 20 GB offered through Google Drive, individuals with heavy media file needs and small businesses are much more likely to require storage sizes in the hundreds of GB range.23

Positive and Negative Impacts of Cloud Computing

Understanding the impacts of cloud computing means taking a look at the advantages and disadvantages of a cloud-based system. The following table presents the highlights which are then reviewed individually.8,27

Cloud Computing Impacts
Advantages Disadvantages
Efficiency Internet Dependency
Cost Less Control
Ease of Access Cyber Threats
Disaster Recovery Migration Difficulty
Security Hidden Environmental Costs
Environmental Sustainability


The advantages of cloud computing appear to outweigh the disadvantages, and the abundant upside of cloud computing is explored here.


The first and most obvious advantage of cloud computing is its efficiency. A person or company relying on the cloud for data storage and processing won’t require the same level of hardware for file storage and backup.

They can simply outsource all of that. Not to mention that saving a file to the cloud is much easier than printing and filing it.


Many cloud providers offer a certain amount of storage for free. And when more data storage is needed, those providers offer various packages at a cost.

That cost is almost always going to be much cheaper than the price of buying and maintaining private servers.

Ease of Access

This overlaps a bit with efficiency, but data in the cloud is extremely easy to access. Rather than tracking down a specific file in its unique storage location, the desired data can usually be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection.

Close up view of a tablet over a laptop.

(Image: Firmbee.com49)

This facilitates remote work, collaboration, and quality control.

Disaster Recovery

One of the best parts about the cloud is the built-in redundancy. When data is saved to the cloud, it is not saved in a single location, but in two or even three locations.

This circumvents the worst-case scenario of data loss due to server malfunction.


Cloud service providers have layers and layers of built-in security to protect customer data. Though it can be anxiety-provoking to trust important data to a third party, cloud security is almost always more effective than what an individual or even institution could affect on their own.33


Another great advantage of cloud computing is the pay-as-you-go model. Individuals and businesses can pay for services or software as they are needed.

They can purchase the amount of storage they want and then increase or decrease as needed.

Environmental Sustainability

Digital data can be produced with fewer resources than printed media, making digital more environmentally friendly in a number of ways. Cloud computing has the added benefit of capitalizing on the efficiency of hyperscale data centers, a pronounced improvement over small and private data center efficiency.


Despite the many obvious advantages of using cloud computing services, it is not without its drawbacks, some of which have people thinking twice about moving to the cloud.

Internet Dependency

Cloud computing relies completely on internet availability and accessibility. Only people who have dependable internet can consistently use the cloud.

Additionally, in the case of internet outages, any data stored on the cloud becomes temporarily unavailable.

Less Control

When trusting data to a third party cloud provider, an individual or company sacrifices some of their control. Not only must they trust that their data is protected, but they also must be content with the structure and format of the cloud service offered, as customization is limited.

Cyber Threats

When an entire system is online, like the cloud, the potential for cyber attacks is increased. The risk is higher on a public cloud than on a private one.

Note that cloud security is indeed better than most in-house security systems but any online activity incurs some risk of data breach.

Migration Difficulty

Some people have had difficulty switching from one cloud provider to another and found themselves locked in with a particular vendor due to high switching costs or large amounts of data requiring transfer.

Hidden Environmental Costs

Cloud computing has made the world greener in a number of ways. Cloud sharing means less printing and paper waste.

It also means that large groups of people all around the world can host meetings over the internet through platforms like Zoom, thus avoiding the direct emissions associated with traveling by car and plane to a central location.

Yet, however, clean the internet and the cloud may appear to be, they are far from carbon-free, and the fact that the environmental costs are so hard to perceive is what makes them so dangerous.

The following sections of this article will dive into exactly what those costs are and examine the carbon footprint of cloud storage.

What Is the Environmental Impact of Cloud Computing?

The previous section touched on the hidden environmental costs associated with cloud storage/computing, and it is time to begin diving deeper into this topic. The environmental impact of cloud computing is a very real threat.

Close up view of a rack inside the engine room of a data center facility.

(Image: Akela99947)

The global web of cloud computing relies upon thousands and thousands of sizable data centers, all filled with servers and other hardware that are continually operating.

The electricity consumed by data centers in the U.S. accounts for 1.8% of the country’s total electricity demand. Contributors to this energy consumption and subsequent CO2 emissions are explored throughout this article, but carbon output is not the only environmental danger of cloud computing.

Data Center Water Consumption

Data centers also require a continual water supply for use in cooling and humidity control. Larger data centers can consume up to 5 million gallons of water each day, a disconcerting number at a time when freshwater is increasingly scarce.22

A fairly recent study found that the water footprint of data centers across the United States was 513 million cubic meters, including direct and indirect water consumption (water is used by power plants in generating electricity).29

Recently, Google began publishing its data center water usage. They report that their average data center consumes 450,000 gallons of water per day with their overall annual water consumption amounting to approximately 4.3 billion gallons in 2021.17

Data Centers and Rare Metals

An article in the Harvard International Review discusses the dangerous use of rare metals in digital technology. Digital tech relies on rare earth elements (REEs), which are so named because they are found in low concentrations and are difficult to extract from the earth’s crust.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) describes the elaborate process of mining rare earth. Currently, available REE mining techniques are, unfortunately, very toxic to the environment.

Furthermore, the materials themselves can carry hazardous heavy metals which are deleterious for the health of humans and other lifeforms.

The Harvard article further states that mining one ton of REEs also creates a ton of “radioactive residue,” and 2,000 total tons of toxic waste. Yet, 280,000 metric tons of rare earth were mined in 2021.

This is why the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is encouraging the recycling and reuse of rare earths.

If cloud service providers and data center operators can find a way to reduce the amount of water required by data centers and find a safer, more efficient way to mine rare earth, the cloud’s environmental impact will shift in a very positive direction.

But… There is still the problem of the cloud’s energy consumption and its growing carbon footprint.

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

In the 1800s, scientists began researching the way increasing amounts of carbon dioxide heat the earth’s atmosphere, creating what became known as a “greenhouse effect.”

As the 20th century ushered in, researchers started to look more closely at the carbon output of the coal industry.

Close up view of a four dice creating a word CO2 reduction/production.

(Image: Frank Harms48)

Yet, amid times of war and industrialization, there was little room for conversation about climate change in the public’s awareness.15

It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that the scientific community at large began to openly discuss climate change, and the topic gradually worked its way into society’s consciousness.

The term “carbon footprint” was invented in the 1990s by scientists attempting to develop a standardized way of researching, tracking, and understanding environmental impact. But the term did not gain traction until the oil company, BP, used it in an early 2000s ad campaign to redirect the attention honing in on big oil industries towards individual consumers.7,15

These days, the term carbon footprint is everywhere. Studies have been launched to uncover the carbon footprint of just about everything, and now individuals can learn about the carbon footprint of milk or the carbon footprint of tofu.

Information is power, and it is a prerequisite for change. So what is a carbon footprint?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a carbon footprint is ”the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are released into the atmosphere each year by a person, family, building, organization, or company.”

What this definition does not make clear is that a carbon footprint also encompasses those emissions that are caused indirectly. Greenhouse gases, or GHG, trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, creating the greenhouse effect mentioned before.

Excess levels of GHG steadily raise the planet’s temperature, in a process called global warming.

Global warming is a serious threat to life on Earth because warmer temperatures change the biology of the planet, making it less suitable for some lifeforms, and disrupting the balance of ecosystem biodiversity. So what are these greenhouse gasses that are so problematic?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), humans are responsible for various GHGs that are considered in global carbon footprint calculations. These emissions are often referred to as CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent.

The greenhouse gasses included in CO2e calculations are:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O)
  • Methane (CH4)
  • Industrial Gases:
    • Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)
    • Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
    • Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
    • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)

The following image from the EPA shows the breakdown of total GHG emissions in the United States for the year 2021.

Pie chart of Overview of Greenhouse Gas Emissions that includes Carbon dioxide (CO2) 79.4%, Methane (CH4)11.5%, Nitrous oxide (N2O)6.2%, and Fluorinated gases3.0% from 1990 - 2021. download from EPA website.

(Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency50)

According to the EPA, total GHG emissions in the United States in 2021 equaled 6,340 million metric tons. This pie chart from the EPA’s website shows the breakdown of GHGs by sector.

Pie chart of Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2021 with Transportation 28%, Industry 23%, Electric Power 25%, Agriculture 10% and Commercial & Residential 13%.

(Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency51)

The biggest contributor to GHG emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Unfortunately, most modes of transportation rely on fossil fuels, as do most industrial areas and electric grids.

Reducing the carbon footprint of the globe requires viewing the problem of global warming at macro and micro levels. This is where calculating the carbon footprint of a person, business, product, and so on becomes quite useful.

What Contributes to a Person’s Carbon Footprint?

Nearly every choice, big or small, is a determinant of an individual’s carbon footprint. In some cases, it is fairly obvious when greenhouse gasses are being emitted, such as when a person:

  • Flies in an airplane
  • Takes a road trip
  • Cools their house in the summer

And while these may be the areas where a single person makes the most impact on overall emissions, there are many much smaller contributors which add up over time, such as:

  • Buying dog food
  • Mining cryptocurrency
  • Updating a wardrobe
  • Upgrading a phone or tv
  • Browsing the internet
  • Taking photos on a phone

Carbon emissions calculator, such as the EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator can be used to estimate CO2e emissions in various domains of a person’s life. These are very useful tools that can provide a general idea to people concerned about their day-to-day impact on the environment.

Carbon footprint calculation can be pretty tricky, so starting out by using free tools on the internet is a stepping stone to learning how to calculate carbon footprint manually.

Ways To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Calculating a carbon footprint is a necessary jumping-off point for people wanting to be more proactive about their CO2e emissions. While the average person may not be able to influence the industries generating the most emissions, they can start by making small changes in their lives to reduce or offset their own footprints.

Aside from earth-friendly web usage carbon offset, Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Plant trees
  • Grow a vegetable garden
  • Compost old food
  • Buy less plastic
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Invest in solar panels
  • Invest in an electric vehicle
  • Extend the lifetime of electronics
  • Be mindful of internet habits

Understanding the Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage

Despite the cloud’s seemingly innocuous essence, the immaterial cloud has a very material infrastructure. It is primarily the vast infrastructure of the cloud and its energy consumption that contribute to the carbon footprint of cloud storage.

Categories of Cloud Storage Carbon Footprint (Scopes 1 – 3)

Whenever carbon footprint calculations are conducted, direct and indirect CO2e emissions should be accounted for to the extent possible. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard outlines how these emissions categories should be measured and accounted for,16 aiming for completeness, consistency, relevance, accuracy, and transparency.10

Scope 1

CO2e emissions that are directly produced by a company or other entity. Emissions generated via combustion by any equipment or other source operated by the entity in question fall under Scope 1.

Scope 2

Indirect CO2e emissions from purchased electricity (or steam, heat, or cooling) to be used by the entity in question.

Note that electricity purchased for resale rather than personal use falls under Scope 3. Scope 2 emissions can be calculated using utility bills or their equivalent to determine the amount of electricity purchased.

Scope 3

All other indirect emissions are not accounted for in Scope 2. Scope 3 refers to the secondary effects of the entity’s operations.

In other words, Scope 3 emissions are not produced directly by property owned by the entity, but they are produced, at least in part, because of the entity. They are often referred to as “value chain emissions.”

Scope 3 can be divided into two segments:

  • Upstream: CO2e from the manufacturing of facilities, equipment, etc.
  • Downstream: CO2e from the use and disposal of products.

The following image from the EPA’s website provides an excellent visual explanation of the various categories of CO2e.

The following table breaks down cloud storage carbon footprint by CO2e category.

Categories of Cloud Storage Carbon Footprint
Scope 1 (Direct) Scope 2 (Indirect) Scope 3 (Indirect)
Diesel Combustion for Backup Generators Purchased Electricity Upstream
Data Center Building Construction
Raw Material Mining
Equipment Manufacturing (Servers, Cooling Systems)
Refrigerant Gases From Cooling Systems Purchased Water Equipment Transportation
Employee Commuting
Gasses for Fire Suppression Wastewater Management
Server Disposal
User Device Emissions and End-of-Life

Data Centre Carbon Footprint

If the cloud is like the nervous system of the internet, encompassing the data center powerhouses and all incoming and outgoing data transmissions, then the data center itself must be the brain of the internet. Data centers are where all of the data is stored, processed, managed, and transferred.

The internet would not exist in its current capacity without the thousands of data centers around the world. The cloud and its data centers are so essential to modern life, that it would be remiss not to examine the carbon footprint of data centers.

A data center carbon footprint depends on the size and type of data center. Data centers range from small in-house hubs and leased colocation centers to enormous hyperscale data centers.

Hyperscale data centers are primarily owned by big-name cloud service providers such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

To be considered hyperscale, the data center must be at least 10,000 square feet and house at least 5,000 servers, but many are much, much bigger. About half of all hyperscale data centers are located within the U.S.39

Although hyperscale data centers consume large amounts of resources to sustain uninterrupted service, these behemoth supercomputing networks are actually much more efficient than their smaller counterparts. The primary reason for this is that large companies are more likely to have the funds to support renewable energy and the newest, most efficient technology.

Approximately 8,000 data centers are located across the globe, according to the United States International Trade Commission’s (USITC) 2021 briefing. The United States houses six times as many data centers as the next leading country, the UK.

The following image from the USITC shows the global breakdown.

Global Trends in Digital and Energy Indicators, 2015-2022
2015 2022 Change
Internet Users 3 Billion 5.3 Billion +78%
Internet Traffic 0.6 ZB 4.4 ZB +600%
Data Center Workloads 180 million 800 million +340%
Data Center Energy use (excluding crypto) 200 TWh 240-340 TWh +20-70%
Crypto mining energy use 4TWh 100-150 TWh +2300-3500 TWh
Data transmission network energy use 220 TWh 26.-360 TWh +18-64%

The six leading countries in data computation are:

  • United States (~2,600: 33.0%)
  • United Kingdom (~450 data centers: 5.7%)
  • Germany (~440 data centers: 5.5%)
  • China (~415 data centers: 5.2%)
  • The Netherlands (~270 data centers: 3.4%)
  • Canada (~260 data centers: 3.3%)

With 2,600 data centers (33% of the worldwide total), the U.S. processes an estimated one-third of global data. Most data center hubs are situated close to major cities, such as Dallas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

As demand for cloud computing and cloud storage continues to grow exponentially, data center construction will likely escalate to accommodate a rapidly increasing need for more and more data! Considering that, it is projected that data centers will be responsible for up to 3.2% of global CO2e by 2025.20

Data Center Energy Consumption

Data center energy consumption is a huge contributor to the cloud’s overall CO2e emissions. Falling under scope 2 emissions, electricity purchased from utilities account for large amounts of GHGs.

In 2022, the electricity demand of all data centers was estimated at about 300 terawatt hours (TWh). That amounts to nearly 2% of global electricity consumption.11

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, data centers consume up to 50 times as much energy per square foot as a typical commercial office building. Given the rate of growth across the ICT sector, it is projected that data center electricity consumption could reach 3,000 TWh by 2030.37

Data centers require even more electricity to continually pump water into the facilities for cooling. An article in The MIT Press Reader illustrated the dangers of cloud computing, describing the detrimental impact that data center management can have on the environment.

As the brain of the internet, data centers are continually operating, a vast engine cycling energy and power.

The endless processing produces significant amounts of heat as a byproduct, and that very heat can compromise the integrity of computing technology equipment. Enormous, computer room air conditioners (CRACs) are used to maintain the temperature of the IT infrastructure.

The CRACs have a significant electricity demand, and they also rely upon chilled water that is pumped into the facility.21 Energy is also consumed during the treatment of water and wastewater.29

It is estimated that the process of cooling alone uses over 40% of a data center’s total electricity demand. Surprisingly, only about 10% of electricity is used for active computing.

The remaining electricity is tied up in building redundancy into the systems to safeguard against system failure.21

The following graphic from the International Energy Agency shows 7-year comparisons for various digital domains.

Note that data center workloads increased more than 4-fold (340%) during those seven years while data center energy use increased between 20 – 70%. Although the data center energy use percentage increase is a large and ambiguous range, the numbers do help to illustrate how data center technology has improved to handle workloads more efficiently over time.

The Center of Expertise for Energy Efficiency in Data Centers provides guidelines for data centers of all sizes to increase their efficiency metrics.

What Is the Cloud Carbon Footprint?

Cloud computing was first invented in the 1960s and didn’t become accessible to home internet users until the mid-1990s. Over the next couple of decades, it would morph into what is recognized as ‘the cloud’ today, spurred forward by mammoth companies like Amazon and Google releasing their own cloud computing services.24

Nowadays, the cloud is completely indispensable, forming the skeleton of modern internet technology. Cloud storage has certainly made life easier for individuals and businesses alike, providing a secure repository and quick access to necessary data.

A graphic that shows the GHG protocol scopes of carbon emissions.

But what of the cloud carbon footprint?

Transferring or storing even one single gigabyte (GB) of data in the cloud can use between 3 and 7 kWh of electricity. This means that storing 100 GB of data in the cloud would produce about .2 tons of CO2e, a number that is dramatically higher than the energy required to save data to a computer or external hard drive.3

Data center operations generated approximately 330 metric tons (Mt) of CO2e in 2020. This was equal to nearly 1% of global energy-related GHG emissions and .6% of overall global emissions.11

Cloud Service Providers

There are many cloud service providers nowadays, but 20 years ago, there were none. Amazon was the first company to launch a cloud service.

In 2006, Amazon Web Services (AWS) was introduced, followed by Google Cloud Platform (GCP) in 2008 and Microsoft Azure in 2010. These three companies still lead the cloud computing industry.

Amazon Web Service

The original and also largest cloud computing company out there, Amazon Web Service (AWS) generates more revenue than any other cloud provider through its 125+ data centers.40 AWS’s service is primarily an IaaS platform, which is high-performing and reliable.

AWS also claims to offer 200+ services to their customers.

AWS is pushing toward sustainability in a number of ways. They are working to extend the life cycle of servers and other hardware by an additional year.

The company is using construction materials (concrete and steel) with 20% less embodied carbon and also beginning to transition to biofuels for its data centers in Europe.9

According to AWS, customers who move their workload from in-house data centers to AWS can reduce their carbon footprint by up to 80%.9 AWS offers a carbon footprint calculator for customers to track and monitor the carbon emissions associated with their AWS workloads.12

The company states that it will run on 100% renewable energy by 2025 with goals for a zero-carbon infrastructure by 2040.

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure also has a large share of the cloud market, with 200 active data centers around the globe.2 Azure has also been a leader in the initiative for sustainability for many years.

In 2012, Azure became carbon neutral and they are committed to relying completely on renewable energy sources in 2025. Additionally, the company seeks to achieve a carbon-negative status before 2030 and aims to have removed all of its carbon emissions throughout its nearly 50-year history by the year 2050.41

These are lofty goals, to be sure, but Microsoft Azure is thinking outside of the box. They have been experimenting with construction using algae bricks which can absorb carbon from the air, effectively creating a carbon sink.25

Google Cloud

Google Cloud is a rapidly expanding network of cloud computing and storage services using the Google infrastructure. Launched in 2008, Google Cloud has become one of the most used cloud computing services in the world and the most used cloud storage service.

With 24 data centers located around the world and growing, Google is able to provide efficient cloud services to customers from any country.13

According to Google, the company is now carbon neutral with enough carbon credits to offset user CO2e! Moreover, they are committed to carbon-free energy for all of their data centers by the year 2030.

Similar to AWS, Google Cloud also offers a tool for customers to calculate their individual cloud impact using billing statements.42


The Apple service, iCloud+, is another common cloud service in the United States and beyond, relied upon by millions of Mac, iPhone, and iPad users. However, Apple is not as heavily invested in maintaining its own data centers as several other big-name companies appear to me.

Apple has only eight data centers around the world as of 2022, but the company leases third-party cloud space from other large companies, such as Google and Amazon.38

Carbon neutral for scope 1 and 2 emissions since 2020, Apple is committed to carbon neutrality for scope 3 emissions by 2030. According to Apple’s 2022 Environmental Social Governance Report, the company has reduced its CO2e emissions by 40% since 2015.

Reportedly, the company’s facilities are now run on 100% renewable energy. Apple is also shifting towards clean energy for their suppliers, with 213 supplier commitments as of March 2022.1


Dropbox is a highly collaborative “file hosting service” which allows customers to share files and sync content. Dropbox has several data centers located across the United States with additional servers in other countries around the world, but the locations are not specified.43

Currently, Dropbox is sourcing 100% renewable energy to supply its data center IT power. Reading between the lines, it does not appear that the renewable energy supply also covers energy needs for cooling, water pumping, and water treatment.26

Close up view of a 3D image of a dice with black dropbox cloud data storage logo in front .

(Image: fernando zhiminaicela48)

According to Dropbox’s 2021 ESG Impact Report, their energy use for data centers in 2021 was 126,447 megawatts (MWh) of electricity, a marked decrease from 167,659 MWh in 2019. The company also reported that they reduced their CO2e emissions by 31% from 2020 to 2021.35

Dropbox has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, and they have reportedly already reduced their carbon footprint by 15%.26

Ways To Moderate Data Center Environmental Impact

It is impossible to simply reverse the negative effects of cloud computing overnight, but it is possible to work towards a greener future for data centers. Cloud service providers, such as Google and Microsoft, are finding different ways to moderate data center environmental impact.

Some of these include:44

  • Buying electricity from renewable energy sources
  • Using recycled wastewater for cooling systems
  • Keeping equipment upgraded to the most efficient models
  • Recycling old equipment and using recycled materials for new equipment
  • Increasing server operating temperatures

Tips To Reduce Digital Carbon Footprint (Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage)

The carbon footprint of the internet is a force to be reckoned with, particularly as it is projected to grow exponentially in the coming years, with cloud computing leading the charge. As discouraging as it can be to contemplate, there are ways to reduce the digital carbon footprint on the individual level.

Here are 8 of them!

1. Email Management

Email servers are much more “carboniferous” than most people realize, generating a sizable email carbon footprint. Every undeleted email is stored in the cloud (with duplicate copies!)

Even junk mail requires some cloud computing power for storage.

Purge the email inbox, delete old messages, and unsubscribe from promotional mail to make the email account cleaner and more efficient.

2. Digital Memory

The cloud is an extremely convenient and efficient storage method for data files, particularly those that need to be accessed quickly and regularly. Remember to always optimize data files before saving them to the cloud, as optimized files require less storage space.

For older files that do not require access on a regular basis, consider saving them to an external hard drive or jump drive. For anyone wondering why this would make a difference, remember that the cloud doesn’t save a single copy of a data file, but usually 3 for redundancy!

3. Bookmark Favorite Webpages

Saving favorite web pages as bookmarks may seem like a small thing, but it does conserve valuable processing time and computing power. Routing directly to a desired website without entering it into a search engine removes an unnecessary middle step from the equation.34

4. Device Energy Consumption

With higher-than-ever dependency on smartphones, paired with their shorter-than-ever battery life, it is no wonder that most people charge their devices every night to wake up to a fresh battery. But not many people know that overcharging a device can have negative environmental effects, as the device continues using power intermittently on and off throughout the night.

Close up view on the charging port of a laptop with the charger connected to it.

(Image: José Manuel de Laá48)

Unplugging chargers and powering down devices when not in use can also lead to decreases in that digital carbon footprint.39

5. Device Lifespan

Surveying Apple’s Product Environmental Reports through the years, one thing becomes abundantly clear… For most personal devices (iPhone, iPad, MacBook), around 75% of CO2e emissions are generated during the manufacturing stage of the device’s lifespan (Desktops are the exception).14

Thus, one way to make a serious dent in that digital carbon footprint is by extending the life cycle of personal devices as long as possible. Holding on to an iPhone for one or two more years increases the value of its carbon footprint and keeps it out of a landfill.

And don’t forget! When it is time to trade in a device for a different one, be sure to recycle the old device.32

6. Streaming Habits

Video streaming is wildly popular in today’s world, with streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu running the show. Video streaming is also a big contributor to the internet’s carbon footprint.

Cutting back on streaming time and turning off autoplay can greatly reduce a person’s digital carbon footprint.34

7. Simplify Websites

Individuals who own or run a website can reduce their carbon footprint by simplifying the website’s code and design as much as possible. A more complex web page takes more time and energy to load and navigate.45

8. Choose a Cloud Provider That Uses Renewable Energy

Despite the vast amounts of water and electricity consumed by data centers, giant, hyperscale data centers are actually much more efficient. When moving to the cloud, be sure to choose a cloud service provider that is environmentally minded.

The Green Web Foundation (TGWF) has publicly accessible databases which indicate whether specific data centers and companies are run on sustainable energy.46

Can something as nebulous as a cloud have a footprint? When it’s a digital cloud, it can.

As each new wave of digital technology weaves the internet deeper into the fabric of human life, society becomes more dependent upon the omnipresent cloud.

With cloud computing and data centers growing at a rate never seen before, understanding and calculating the carbon footprint of cloud storage is critical for achieving digital sustainability.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage

How Can I Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Cloud Storage?

Reduce the carbon footprint of cloud storage by choosing a green cloud provider, optimizing data files, and deleting duplicate and unnecessary files.

How Can I Find Out My Computer's Environmental Impact?

More technology manufacturing companies are tracking and reporting their products’ carbon footprints through their sustainability web pages. The best way to find out a specific computer’s environmental impact is to search for its environmental report on the manufacturer’s website.


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