Data Storage and Measuring Cloud Computing Emissions

In this blog post, we delve into two primary questions: Is opting for cloud storage more environmentally friendly than utilizing internal data servers, and how can one assess the carbon footprint of using the major cloud storage providers?

When it comes to the environmental impact of storing data, the answer isn’t black and white. For individual users with hard drive storage, it’s generally more eco-friendly to use the storage built into your device, as it avoids the need to power and cool additional devices. Businesses, however, often require more extensive storage solutions. Here, they face three main options:

1. Internal, On-premise Data Centres – The traditional, and increasingly rare option, and often less energy-efficient.

2. Colocation Data Centres: Where customers rent servers in an off-site location – an intermediate option.

3. Hyperscale Data Centres (Cloud Data Centres): These are the most energy-efficient, optimizing machine use, employing advanced cooling technologies, and frequently integrating on-site renewable energy.

Supporting this assertion is a study titled ‘The Environmental Footprint of Data Centers in the United States’ (Siddik et al, 2021), which indicates that hyperscale cloud data centres are superior in delivering more computing workloads with lower water and carbon intensity per workload.

How can we assess the carbon impact of our cloud storage use?

Moving to the second question: how can we assess the carbon impact of our cloud storage use? The good news is that big three – Amazon Web Service (AWS), Microsoft, and Google Cloud – offer tools for this very purpose:

– AWS: Customer Carbon Footprint Tool

– Microsoft (Azure): Emissions Impact Dashboard

– Google Cloud

But what do these tools cover?

Ideally, they would take a comprehensive approach including all emissions (Scope 1, 2, and 3), and with separate reporting of  market-based and location-based emissions for Scope 2. It would also be beneficial to understand onsite renewable energy production at the data centres.

Here’s how each service stacks up in terms of emission scopes:

Microsoft’s tool is the most comprehensive, covering all scopes and offering both market-based and location-based options for Scope 2 emissions. Their sustainability efforts are well-documented, with detailed research and updates readily available on their website. They’ve pledged to be carbon negative by 2030 and aim to offset all historical emissions by 2050.

Google Cloud’s tool omits several categories in its emissions reporting, making it less comprehensive than Microsoft’s offering. The excluded categories are:

  • Electricity Loss: Emissions from electricity lost during transmission and distribution.
  • Fuel Extraction and Transportation: The life cycle emissions from fuel extraction, transportation, and the infrastructure used in generating grid electricity.
  • Fugitive HVAC Emissions: Emissions from HVAC system coolants that escape into the atmosphere.
  • Small Equipment Emissions: Emissions from minor equipment used by internet service providers’ partners.
  • External Networking Equipment: Emissions from Google’s networking equipment located outside of data centres.
  • End-of-Life Emissions: Downstream emissions from the disposal and decommissioning of data centre equipment and buildings.

Although less detailed compared to Microsoft’s tool, Google Cloud’s tool does account for some Scope 3 emissions. Google has set targets to achieve net-zero emissions across all operations and its value chain by 2030. This involves reducing the total of Scope 1, 2 (market-based), and 3 absolute emissions by 50% from their 2019 baseline before 2030. Google plans to invest in both nature-based and technology-based carbon removal solutions to offset their remaining emissions.

The Amazon Web Services tool accounts for Scope 1 emissions and market-based Scope 2 emissions but does not cover Scope 3. As a corporation, Amazon has made a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and, as of their 2022 report, 90% of their operations were powered by renewable energy. 

In conclusion, the decision to opt for cloud storage versus internal servers carries significant environmental implications. For individual users, leveraging built-in storage is generally more eco-friendly, while businesses with larger data needs might find cloud storage, particularly through hyperscale data centres, a more sustainable option. These centres, renowned for their efficiency and renewable energy use, offer a compelling argument because of their reduced environmental impact.

And, thanks to the new tools available, it’s now possible to quantify the emissions associated with the use of cloud computing.  However, the tools provided by AWS, Microsoft, and Google Cloud each offer varying degrees of insight into emissions, with Microsoft’s Emissions Impact Dashboard leading in comprehensiveness. It’s essential for users, especially corporate entities, to dive into these tools to obtain a detailed view of their emissions across all scopes. Despite their differences, each tool provides valuable information that can guide users in making more informed and environmentally conscious decisions.

How to contribute to environmental change with 1% for the Planet

When we create environmental management systems for our clients, one of the actions we almost always include is signing up to “1% of the planet”. 1% for the Planet is a global movement that encourages businesses and individuals to contribute at least 1% of their annual sales or income to environmental charities as part of their corporate environmental responsibility. Founded by Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Craig Mathews of Blue Ribbon Flies in 2002, this initiative is not just about donations, but about a fundamental change in how businesses approach their environmental responsibility. 

Since its inception, 1% for the Planet has grown into a substantial network with over 5,200 business members from more than 110 countries. Together, they have contributed over $585 million to environmental causes. 

It’s almost been a year since Green Small Business became a 1% for the Planet member, check out our member profile in the directory here.  

The commitment: 1% of sales, not profit:

One of the most significant aspects of 1% for the Planet is its focus on sales rather than profit. Companies commit to donating 1% of their annual sales, not profits, to environmental organizations. This distinction is vital. Profits are always subject to numerous end-of-year adjustments. An approach based on sales ensures a more consistent and reliable contribution to environmental causes, regardless of a company’s financial performance. It is a mechanism that integrates sustainable funding models into your business model, ensuring that support for environmental charities is inherently part of your operations. 

How It Works: 

1% for the Planet operates on a straightforward yet effective four-step process: 

1. Commit: Businesses commit to donating at least 1% of their annual sales to environmental organizations. 

2. Give: The donations are made directly to one or more approved environmental organizations. 

3. Certify: Members submit donation receipts and revenue documentation to certify as a 1% for the Planet member, ensuring transparency and accountability. 

4. Amplify: Members use their certification and the network’s platform to inspire other businesses and individuals to join the movement and contribute to environmental causes. 

A unique aspect of 1% for the Planet is the autonomy it provides to its members in choosing where their donations go. Members can select from over 400 partner non-profit organizations, allowing them to support causes that align closely with their values and priorities. This flexibility not only encourages more businesses to participate but also ensures that a wide range of environmental issues receive attention and funding. 

Benefits of 1% for the Planet membership for your business:

Recent studies underscore the importance of environmental commitment in business. For instance, a Gen Z purpose study conducted by Porter Novelli revealed that a staggering 93% of Gen Z consumers believe it is essential for companies to have appropriate programs and policies to back their environmental commitments. This sentiment is not limited to Gen Z; it resonates across various consumer demographics, emphasising the widespread demand for corporate responsibility.  

Businesses with strong environmental commitments are increasingly outperforming those without such commitments. Consumers are more likely to support and stay loyal to brands that demonstrate a genuine concern for the environment. This preference is reflected in their purchasing decisions, leading to better performance for environmentally committed brands in the marketplace. 

1% for the Planet represents a powerful shift in how businesses can engage in environmental stewardship. By tying donations to sales, ensuring transparency, and empowering members to choose where their money goes, this initiative is creating a sustainable and impactful way for the business community to contribute to the well-being of our planet. As this movement continues to grow, it really shows what can be achieved when businesses take an active role in supporting environmental causes. 

EU legislation to combat greenwashing

The European Parliament has taken a key step forward in the fight against greenwashing with the adoption of the “Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition Directive.” Although the directive still requires Council approval before publication in the Official Journal, it was agreed in the European Parliament last week with 593 votes in favour, 21 against and 14 abstentions, hopefully marking a new era in consumer protection and environmental marketing.

Key Features of the Directive:

  1. Generic environmental claims and other deceptive product information will now be prohibited. The new rules target clearer and more trustworthy product labelling, specifically banning vague claims like “environmentally friendly” or “eco” without substantial proof.
  2. The prohibition of claims regarding neutral, reduced, or positive environmental impact solely based on emissions offsetting schemes. This change is crucial in ensuring that companies can’t just offset emissions but need to prove actual sustainable practices.
  3. Only sustainability labels based on approved certification schemes or established by public authorities will be permitted.
  4. The directive also aims to shift focus towards the durability of goods, mandating more visible guarantee information and a new label for goods with extended guarantee periods. This transparency will empower consumers to make better decisions based on the realistic lifespan of products.

This crackdown on misleading terms is a welcome change, ensuring consumers are not duped by false advertising. While these regulations are promising, we hope they don’t make it overly challenging for genuinely eco-friendly products to market their benefits. It’s crucial that this doesn’t lead to ‘greenhushing’ – where companies shy away from promoting their sustainable practices due to fear of breaking rules.

We welcome the emphasis this places on direct reductions in emissions and hope that it is the first step towards the abolition of the concept of offsetting altogether. Whilst businesses must continue to invest in high quality carbon sequestration projects, the idea that these can somehow compensate for emissions produced by business activity undermines the change we need to see.

The EU Council’s approval is the next step for this legislation. Once enacted, member states will have two years to incorporate these rules into national law. Alongside this, the EU Commission has proposed a “Directive on Green Claims,” to further protect consumers and ensure companies substantiate their environmental claims.

Your pension and the planet: what you need to know.

Most of us view pensions as a distant and complex element of our financial planning. However, your pension represents a substantial investment sum, and its allocation profoundly impacts various sectors and issues, for better or for worse. With approximately £3 trillion invested in pensions in the UK alone, directing these funds towards ethical and environmentally positive sectors can significantly benefit our environment and society.

What Makes a Pension Ethical?

An ethical pension means more than just avoiding negative investment consequences. It’s about proactively supporting sectors that contribute positively to society, like healthcare and sustainable energy. Ethical pension funds operate on strict criteria, avoiding investments in harmful sectors like arms, tobacco, and fossil fuels, and instead, channelling your money into companies that uphold social and environmental values​​.

Providers and Their Policies

The following workplace pension schemes offer an ethical fund option:

  • NEST
  • People’s Pension
  • Aviva – see here details of the funds available, which includes various ethical funds
  • Creative
  • TPT (The Pension Trust) have various Ethical Funds, detailed here.

Among the other providers:

  • Penfold have a sustainable pension plan option but you would need to check with them whether it is available on your workplace scheme
  • Scottish Widows appear to be applying ethical investment principles across some of their funds. See here. Check with them what options are open to your staff
  • Aegon appear to be applying ethical investment principles across some of their funds. See here. Check with them what options are open to your staff
  • Royal London have a range of sustainable pension funds. Check with them what options are open to your staff

It’s vital to understand what each provider means by “ethical” or “sustainable” and whether their policies align with your values​​. For a wider explanation of what makes an ‘ethical’ pension and reviews of the mainstream pension providers, see this Ethical Consumer review

The terminology used detailing pension funds can be misleading, with terms like “sustainable,” “responsible,” and “ESG” often used interchangeably yet meaning different things. Decoding these terms and understanding the actual policies behind them is crucial. Some funds may not be as ethical as they claim, so doing your homework is essential​​.

What to consider when choosing a pension provider?

  • Investment Sectors: Ensure your pension does not support industries detrimental to the environment, such as fossil fuels, or unethical sectors such as armaments​​.
  • Transparency: Opt for a provider that is open about where your money is invested. Lack of transparency can be a significant red flag​​.
  • Seek Advice: Consulting with an ethical financial adviser can provide personalised guidance tailored to your values and financial goals​​, this is particularly useful if you wish to invest in specific projects. The Ethical Investment Association is a good place to start in the UK. 

As more people become aware of the impact of their investments, the demand for ethical pensions is likely to increase. This demand can drive more pension providers to adopt stricter ethical standards and offer more transparent and genuinely ethical investment options. Opting for an ethical pension is among the most powerful financial decisions you can make, allowing you to ensure your investments contribute positively to the planet and support initiatives that directly impact ethical, low carbon, and climate-friendly projects.

Are all green energy tariffs as green as they seem?

The energy market is teeming with tariffs labelled as ‘green’ or ‘renewable,’ but what lies beneath these claims? According to the Ethical Consumer, many suppliers buy Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin Certificates (REGOs) to market fossil fuel-derived energy as ‘green electricity.’ These certificates can be traded on a secondary market, allowing suppliers to claim their energy is green without sourcing it directly from renewable resources.

Ethical Consumer highlights Good EnergyEcotricity and GEUK as ‘best buys.’ These are the only tariffs that can be genuinely considered 100% renewable. For those seeking tailored advice, a specialist broker like Squeaky can guide you through the process, ensuring environmental considerations are at the forefront of your decision.

If you are a business with substantial energy needs, e.g. from manufacturing processes or large-scale data processing, you may be able to benefit from a Power Purchase Agreement. Such agreements involving sourcing renewable energy directly and can provide a stable, greener and often more affordable source of electricity over the long term. Again, specialists such as Squeaky are a good place to start in exploring such possibilities.

Tenant Rights and Green Energy

Directly Paying Tenants

If you are a commercial tenant directly paying for the electricity bill, you are legally entitled to change your energy supplier. Ofgem’s advice on how to switch suppliers as a tenant says that a “default supplier clause” in your tenancy agreement allows your letting agent or your landlord to have the final decision on hiring a preferred energy supplier regardless of your preference. However, under this situation, you can still legally request the change. 

Tenants Not Directly Paying for Electricity

For those not directly paying for electricity, the situation is more complex. The decision to change suppliers lies with the landlord. However, you can explore modifying your tenancy agreement to become the bill payer or persuade your landlord about the benefits of switching suppliers. If you are a commercial tenant in a shared building, consider joining forces with the other tenants to put pressure on your landlord to change.

Distinguishing truly green tariffs from those masquerading as sustainable is crucial in making ethical and environmentally conscious choices. Whether you’re selecting a tariff for your home or navigating the complexities of tenant rights, understanding the intricacies of the green energy market empowers you to make informed decisions. To explore the issues involved here in more detail, see this excellent guide from Ethical Consumer Guide to Gas and Electricity Tariffs or this Insight piece from Squeaky.

A digital illustration showing a person standing at a fork in a path, contemplating two distinct landscapes. On the left, a green and lush environment symbolizes renewable energy, complete with a sun and leaf icon floating above. On the right, a dark, industrial landscape represents fossil fuels, with a smokestack and oil barrel icon.