Net Zero by 2050 – is it a viable goal?

Net Zero by 2050? Maybe - but it's more complicated than you might think.
11 May 2023

The chances, at least, are higher than zero…

Experts have been warning about the potential cataclysm that is climate change since at least the 1980s. But recently, climate science from the likes of the World Resources Institute have made the issue as clear as an active shooter drill. We still have time to avert the worst impacts of climate change – but not much of it. Companies and governments everywhere are aiming to decarbonize their industries (to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases), with some countries, like the UK, publishing bold statements of intent to halve emissions across the economy by 2030, and to achieve “Net Zero” – an overall neutral level of emissions – by 2050.

The tech industry plays a significant role in bumping up any economy’s figures on greenhouse gases, but there’s an argument that cloud computing lightens the load significantly. We caught up with Paul Mackay, Cloud Director, EMEA at Cloudera, to ask him about the sustainability benefits of cloud, and whether Net Zero was actually a realistic goal within the UK’s timeframe.


Net Zero by 2050 – is that actually a feasible goal? If it is, what do we need to do to get us there? And if it isn’t, why isn’t it?


We have to believe that it’s possible, right?

I definitely feel that we are in a much better position to achieve it now, especially in our industry, because of the shift in technologies that we’ve seen in recent years. So, I think the ability to adopt technologies that, for example, are by default more energy-efficient, using software stacks that allow things to be much more automated and turn on and turn off, which has a whole knock-on effect on not only power usage, are crucial to making it feasible – but also, asking the question of whether, if I’m using automation, I need the same number of people travelling into data centers.

The ten-point target.

So I think it is feasible. I think technology continues to provide opportunities for organizations to adopt some of this. I went back through the original UK government’s ten-point plan, and it made me chuckle as I got back up to speed.

But that ten-point plan obviously had a huge focus on driving more sustainable energies, using things more efficiently, and the huge IT burden that exists on organizations. I do think it’s feasible, and certainly the technology, compared 15 years ago, allows us to achieve that goal.


What have been the main technological game-changers that make it an achievable goal now?


Hardware, in the first instance, in terms of how processes have become even more powerful, smaller, requiring less energy, that whole hardware end of the business. There’s been a huge improvement there.

I’d say from a software capability too, technologies like virtualization, technologies like containers, and the ability to have workloads spread across resources that can spin up and spin down, so you get that kind of true utilization.

And then you know, a third improvement has been the emergence of the hyperscalers, and them having to think very stringently and hard about how they, as owners of huge data centers with huge compute resources and compute energy requirements, can help to do this. How do they become carbon-neutral or drive more efficiencies around energy usage?

So I think a combination of those three things, but for sure, software in the middle, and the way that we use software, combined with those other things, would be the main elements I’d choose as the great enablers.

The public sector drag factor.


Do we need to put sustainability right in the center of the business equation from now on? And if so, is that likely to be an easy transition? Will it be easier if the hyperscalers lead the way?


There’s definitely much more awareness now, yes. You have CIOs and CEOs that are acutely in tune to the fact that as the owners or custodians of an organization, they have to be able to demonstrate that they’re doing their part, trying to drive this net-neutral agenda.

I would definitely say that one of the trends we’ve seen is that within the private sector, when we’re responding to RFPs, we’re heavily weighting that towards some of this stuff – how can your technology help us do this? Can you demonstrate to us how you can help us become a carbon-zero organization?

Another thing we’ve seen a lot is that the public sector is a little slower to adopt this idea of going carbon-neutral. And if anything, that just illustrates that the push for this has to be driven from the top down. When you do that, you can start to ask these questions of all of your vendors and suppliers, and that helps you paint a better picture, so that eventually, not only are you making a difference, but you can advertise that to your customer base.

As consumers, I think we’re more aware of that, and we want to consume from organizations that are doing more to help.

Bridging the gap.


Why do we think there is that difference between private and public sectors in terms of the uptake of Net Zero policies? And how do we bridge that gap?


Yeah, that’s a tough one to answer. We definitely know that the public sector has always been slower to adopt new technologies and slower to change, because change is made harder in those organizations by the way that they’re run – look at government, for example, right?

So, trying to make a change within the civil service, or trying to make a change within the UK’s NHS is an incredibly big thing to do. For instance, it’s almost become a cliché that when you implement a new IT system in the NHS, irrespective of the companies you use to do it, it’s phenomenally difficult to do, because for instance, the number of people using the system is huge, everybody has their own way of doing things, and public sector systems tend to evolve their own ways of working, even if those ways are workarounds, so any time you bring in something new, you’re evolving almost from scratch.

I think that’s part of it. So if I’m adopting more sustainable technologies, such as cloud, such as virtualization, in the public sector, that might in itself make me wonder about going down that path.

But I will say that in a more traditional private company, when you have a CEO that comes in or a CMO that comes in that maybe wants to drive change, because they’ve done that somewhere else, and they’ve got the ability to do it, that might be a little easier to do than it would be within a government environment. Even if that government has issued a ten-point plan about how we must get to Net Zero.


In Part 2 of this article, we’ll delve deeper into the roadmap between having the intention to go Net Zero and having significant technological advancements that make it possible, and actually getting it done.