Green IO
#7.b - Cameron Casher and Benjamin Davy - Cloud Sustainability beyond carbon emission
September 14, 2022
In this episode, we stay in Denver and Montpellier with Cameron Casher, Clean Tech Strategist at ThoughtWorks, and Benjamin Davy, Sustainability Director at Teads. Being both hands-on engineers 👨‍💻 and well-known voices in Cloud Sustainability 🌱, we decided to have this extra episode to go "beyond carbon" and talk about hardware, water consumption, recycling and resources exhaustion. The next challenges for any responsible technologists using Cloud services. ❤️ Subscribe, follow, like, ... stay connected the way you want to never miss an episode!
In this episode, we stay in Denver and Montpellier with Cameron Casher, Clean Tech Strategist at ThoughtWorks, and Benjamin Davy, Sustainability Director at Teads. Being both hands-on engineers 👨‍💻 and well-known voices in Cloud Sustainability 🌱, we decided to have this extra episode to go "beyond carbon" and talk about hardware, water consumption, recycling and resources exhaustion. The next challenges for any responsible technologists using Cloud services. 

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Gaël: Welcome back on the show, Cameron and Ben, are you still happy to be there? 

Cameron: Definitely!

Benjamin: Of course. 

Gaël: Okay, thanks a lot. In the first part of this episode we discussed intensively about the system dashboards released by AWS, GCP and Azure as well as the benefits of using CCF to try cloud sustainability. And of course you gave us meaningful insights on how to act upon these metrics to reduce the carbon footprint coming from anyone's cloud operation mentioning especially all the work being done in the Green Software foundation. What I'd like to start talking about now is “let's talk beyond just the greenhouse gas emissions made by the sole electricity consumption of data centers”. So first of all to kill a bit a debate that doesn't really need to happen, reducing those emissions is never a waste of time - by lowering the carbon intensity of the energy mix or even better when focusing on reducing the electricity consumption because a good watt remains a negative watt and we should be aware of the eviction effects when this low carbon electricity cannot be used for all the needs. But what about the carbon footprint of all this equipment inside the data center, the so-called embedded carbon? Can it be tracked? What's your take on it?

Cameron: So the way that Cloud Carbon Footprint open source tool tackles embedded or embodied emissions is considering it as the amount of carbon emitted during the creation and disposal of a hardware device. So in order to estimate embodied emissions in the cloud, we need to calculate the fraction of the total embodied emissions that should be allocated to your particular amount of usage or workload. For example, if you are only utilizing a subset of virtual CPUs that are available on a given physical server, then we need to allocate a relative amount of embodied emissions to represent this. And CCF is able to leverage the first version of the software carbon intensity, the SCI specification, which defines a methodology for calculating the rate of carbon emissions for a software system. We've also leveraged the research published by Teeds in Benjamin Davy here in order to apply this to AWS, GCP and Azure. So by applying the formula, we're able to get embodied emissions estimations but at this time we are only able to include compute usage types for each cloud provider. But having said that we're welcome to any contributions to apply embodied emissions to other types of cloud usage is as well.

Gaël: Ben, do you want to highlight this study that has been done? 

Benjamin: Yeah, sure. And thanks Cameron for using this and improving it. So with Teads and also with the Boavizta collective, we looked at the state of the art to define basically emission factors to estimate the manufacturing emissions depending on the server hardware specifications. The issue is that there are really few publicly available reports and data and even the most advanced studies, we found they rely on a few reports from electronic components manufacturers themselves and these reports are starting to be a bit old dating sometimes for five or seven years, basically the state of the art on assessing the embodied emissions of digital hardware is really, really limited. Even specific lifecycle databases that you need to pay for. They do not really have much better data. So in fact, we had to make some guests and I used what was best available. So these emission factors, they have their limitations, but it's the best we could find and I think we need to start somewhere. So it's already interesting to estimate calculate something. And on top of that, it's even more difficult if we think about hyperscaler hardware because they usually have custom made electronic components, hardware. They build their own network hardware. They have a custom-made intel cpus they have their own  CPU design firm. So,it's getting even more difficult. So yeah, embodied emissions is really where we should push as an industry as a practitioner for more transparency from manufacturers. Ultimately goes down to the extraction of all the metals and minerals that are used to build these resources.

Gaël: Going back to what you say, we definitely need more transparency from manufacturers for regular - I would say standard - equipment. But what you've mentioned regarding hyperscalers that seems to lead to a unique conclusion that we need more transparency from them as well. Is it something that you are optimistic about? Both Ben and Cameron because you've got different positions with them.

Benjamin: So if we think about carbon and scope three emissions, I'm fairly confident that all providers will follow what Microsoft did and report scope three, but if they report on a monthly basis and on a service level they will not disclose, I think industrial secrets. So that's something they can do, I hope and I am pretty sure they will. However, disclosing with more details, the other impacts from manufacturing, the infrastructure and hardware, I think it's very early and we will need more push from regulation and this is coming in Europe and in France. So maybe at some point there will be pushed to do this. But without any regulation, I wouldn't be confident about this.

Gaël: What's your take on it, Cameron?

Cameron: I would agree with Ben that, you know, now that Microsoft has sort of started the trend, it will push the others to follow suit. I wouldn't expect that to happen anytime soon because I think there might be some hurdles to be jumped to be able to provide that sort of data. I also agree that it's really going to be driven by regulation like Ben said, and you know, some companies disclose some of this data today, but a lot of it's done on a voluntary basis and I think this kind of gets in at least into the US where we have some of these SEC proposals which would, you know, help accelerate some of this to go beyond carbon a bit and take a look into, you know, more scope three guidelines that you need to report on. Besides just the cloud carbon footprint.

Gaël: And this regulation might also help us having more homogenous way to report and maybe even a bit more academic background with more research etcetera because what I understand is that we've got very little consensus on how they should be measured. Plus we've got very little transparency on the data these non consensual methodology are calculated upon, is it correct?

Cameron: Yeah, I would definitely say there is very minimal data out there right now but you know from the time I first started getting involved in this space to now I think there's been a lot more in the space, partially thanks to you know, people like Ben and his colleagues publishing more and more research but that you know, that's what makes it hard for our team to calculate our methodologies and we're relying on estimations since we're not actually able to deal with the the actual energy consumption data, we have to measure and use averages from publicly available data until we are able to source more of this. And until there is more research done to understand what a good calculating coefficient could be for measuring networking usage, something like that.

Gaël: We mentioned it several times and I think it's actually time to move beyond carbon. Had a discussion recently. I wanted to know a bit more about the SDIA and I reached out Max Schultze its founder. He was very straightforward on several points like the lack of transparency, the need to focus on LCA, ... I think he was very provocative saying “stop focusing on carbon”. His point was that we need to focus a lot more on the other environmental impacts of the digital sector and then you started to mention it. So what's your position on it?

Benjamin: when we think about optimizing our footprint and using the carbon as the main KPI some of our reflects or some of our ideas to do that might transfer impacts somewhere else. So let me give you an example. Each year providers are adding newer instance types that are more power efficient. This hardware is manufactured and manufacturing it has an impact if I only look at carbon emissions due to the use of electricity and even if I take into account her scope three and embodied emissions pushing the industry for renewing often the the hardware we use for electricity efficiency reasons is creating a lot of issues on the environment because to manufacture these we need to extract a lot of metals. This topic is being more and more discussed due to the energy transition. We talk about it because of lithium and batteries but actually it's the same for all metals. We need to be cautious on our usage of metals because we used to live in a fossil world and we are entering a metal world. So all of the things that Tech we are using rely on metal and it's not an infinite resource. The solar panels and the windmills are using metals, a lot of metals. This is something we need to have in mind. Is that on top of optimizing the energy we use the electricity we use, we might also want to avoid renewing too often the hardware we use.

Gaël: But the question I actually wanted to ask you, Ben regarding what you stated about resource exhaustion is “But what about reusing and recycling?”

Benjamin: Today? We do not really recycle electronic components. We moved them to a recycling facility and then we are not today able to - or maybe it's not economically viable - but to get the raw materials back. So it's today there's not a complete loop on the recycling it's difficult to separate the elements. So maybe in the future…

Gaël: Yes. In the digital collage, when I facilitate the workshop, the digital collage, I always use the example of the ratatouille, that's almost impossible to 

Benjamin: Exactly 

Gaël: Create back a tomato once you've put it in the ratatouille 

Benjamin: Yeah, that's exactly the right image. So recycling is not today, not a viable solution for many reasons. So the best way to approach this is to use the existing hardware much longer and to be frank most of the hardware  we have today is already pretty good. And as soon as the electricity grid is a bit less carbonized, this will push the problem on manufacturing and we can focus on maybe making sure that this hardware is used longer

Gaël: to avoid the transfer of pollution.

Benjamin: Exactly. We only talked about metric extraction but there are dozens of impacts that are analyzed in lifecycle analysis methodologies and for digital hardware we can think about the use of water. It's also interesting because data centers for their run also use a lot of water. So it's not only a manufacturing problem. The water usage is also a use and operation problem, but yet there are many other issues related to this. And when you were talking about recycling today, it's not recycled. It ends up in landfills and it creates echo toxicities issues because these materials and products are not meant to be dumped in the nature.

Gaël: Yeah, let's bounce back on this water question as well because you mentioned that it is widely used on the run phase. According to some leaders in the industry, the water consumption of data centers might become a thing of the past because of free cooling. So my question to both of you would be: “do you believe that free cooling will solve this water consumption issue?” And my second question is “Is it truly to cool down data centers or to actually use water to produce the electricity that will power them that we use a lot of water? Sorry folks, two questions in one.

Benjamin: So to answer the second question, what I'm referring to in the water usage is the cooling part. So using water to cool down data centers. I'm not a data center expert but I guess that before all the existing data centers move to a free cooling technologies we’ll continue to use a lot of water

Gaël: Cameron. Do you have a position on this water consumption question?

Cameron: Yeah, my thought aligns with what Ben was saying. I think if data centers are offered free cooling, I can't imagine it would have an immediate impact. You know, it would probably take some time to do that sort of migration or transition. And I'm sure there would still be a lot of water used for that process for who knows how long you know, until it's more generally available.

Gaël: Fair point. Knowing that I should have mentioned my source actually who is David Mytton? Who studied the water consumption caused by data centers and it's pretty high to cool them down but it's even higher to produce electricity. Just not sure about the exact number but I think was like 80% of the water consumption that could be attributed to the data center is actually because of the electricity production that is used to power it and only 20% to cool it down. But this is still still very big numbers and I guess it depends on the regions. So water usage, transfer of pollution, resource exhaustion, water usage, definitely a need for more life cycle assessments! Do you believe that this is something that would happen in the near future? Could it happen without some kind of regulation push

Benjamin: there are initiatives pushing a life cycle assessments in Europe as well. There are some regulations pushing for these methodologies to be more widely used. So I'm pretty confident we have more and more data studies examples and maybe it will also point out the lack of primary data that are required to do these life cycle assessments. I'm pretty confident we'll have more in the future. Maybe not as fast as I would hope. But

Cameron: yeah, I just wanted to call out that David is actually a big contributor to our open source tool, so he's been great and he's been a community expert that we've been able to speak to our methodological decisions too. But back to your question, it's you know, it's hard for me to see major improvements or research being formed without any regulation, especially here in the US. It seems like most of the strides that I'm seeing at least are coming overseas across the pond in Europe especially. So I would agree with Ben, you know, if, you know, we start to see some of these regulations, then you know, there might be more data available for more research and being able to make more knowledgeable decisions.

Gaël: Well actually that triggers a question about where we are in our industry, because Green tends to become a bit trendy. We hear more and more about it, but are all the organizations serious about it? Do you believe that some greenwashing takes place as well? So yeah, I would love to hear about what are the main trends that you see today in the digital sustainable area.

Cameron: So I think what I've seen personally is more excitement from different organizations, you know, as I work for a consulting company and we're having regular discussions with potential clients or existing clients about considering a more sustainable cloud infrastructure. It's a very lively discussion, there's a lot of interest at the end of the day, it needs to get the buy back from the executives and I think to this point along with regulations,you need to identify the relationship with the costs as well from a financial standpoint. And a lot of the decisions that are coming down from this level are heavily based around cost. And what I've come to realize recently is, you know, I've been more involved in the FinOps Foundation, specifically within the sustainability working group. And we're starting to define the relationship between FinOps and what we're calling GreenOps and you know, when you combine all those together with software engineering, we're trying to define something called SustainableOps in general and you know, once you're an executive leader at an organization that you know, might want to try and make some changes in the digital sustainability space, but you need to justify it alongside costs. You know, some of what we're trying to do is help you make that decision, see some of the data, create a new culture around FinOps and GreenOps best practices. And so I think alongside regulations, I think, you know, building out this culture leveraging, FinOps best practices is how you might see a new trend take place across organizations

Gaël: and pushed mostly by new regulations or pushed by other stakeholders as well?

Cameron: You know, I would say mainly regulations. But I also think there's something to be said about, you know, a company's brand name and this is where you could consider the issue of greenwashing. You know, maybe there's more and more pressure to promote clean and sustainable brand. And maybe that's becoming a general member of the Green Software Foundation, but you know, to avoid greenwashing, it's important to actually prove that you're able to make actionable changes and you know, this starts with understanding green software principles, understanding how you can make GreenOps or sustainability across functional requirement when you're making day to day decisions.

Gaël: And Ben you wanted to say something, I think I actually interrupted you sorry about that,

Benjamin: What I can say about the greenwashing issue and talking from a digital advertising background is that like in all initiatives I think we need to be humble. We said time and time again that we used estimations, that the data was not robust enough. So this is a topic where we can all work together and without any competing problems that we need to be humble to be transparent on what we are able to do and not do some big announcements on having solved the problem because we all know that's a long journey. So yeah that would be my my answer to the greenwashing risk

Gaël: Fair point. So Cameron and Ben regarding what you've described with the latest trends toward more sustainably in our industry. Are you globally optimistic or do you believe that they are still very significant hurdles that will prevent us to reach the transparency that we discussed before and to get a full grasp on all the environmental impact that cloud operations have

Cameron: You know, I would say from the work that I've seen without so much regulation taking place at this time, I see a lot of excitement whenever we have discussions with clients at ThoughtWorks talking about you know green initiatives or green software principles in greening of their IT. So it seems to me that there is a lot of interests actually. Executing on some of this is what's tough without the regulation. But the interest alone is making me optimistic and you know if you can get enough buy-in from organizations across the globe, then, you know, maybe they'll start making some of these optimization changes and start using the cloud when it's operated by renewable energy on the grid. And you know, that alone could snowball and create enough pressure to make the cloud providers a bit more transparent or just get more information released. So I think there is a positive trend going and I'm optimistic that we're heading in the right direction.

Benjamin: I totally agree with you Cameron. And I'm usually a very pessimistic person! But if we look at the bright side, we can see that the digital sustainability topic overall gathers more and more people that are genuinely interested in creating open source comments and acting positively. Big companies, big cloud clients and users, are pressuring the providers to share more, to move faster on this topic. So I think we can hope that the customers can get some more pressure in the end and make things go forward even though the regulation might help but will be a bit late to the party. So I would say I'm pretty optimistic on the fact that a lot of people are pushing on this topic.

Gaël: You see a lot of traction which leads me to the final question - being mindful of time and especially yours - All these newcomers entering the digital sustainability field and even more precisely the cloud sustainability field, they will be looking for information. Where would you advise them to start looking for?

Benjamin: I can start, I personally learned a lot reading articles from David Mytton that you already mentioned in the UK. And also in France on another approach the work from Gautier Roussihle. So I would definitely suggest following them.

Gaël: Spoiler alert! David will be on the show before the end of the year and maybe Q3. I still need to work on inviting Gautier, but that will be also amazing.

Benjamin: So yeah, so the best thing you could do is a follow-up on the Green I/O podcast and [laughing]

Gaël: [laughing] That's a nice one, That's a nice one. 

Benjamin: But yeah, apart from from these two, I would recommend following the work from the initiatives we mentioned like the Green Software Foundation and Boavizta because both publish great articles.

Cameron: So a couple things come to mind here for me, I would say, you know, recently the Green Software Foundation just had an annual summit take place globally different locations around the world. We helped in New York here in the US. Asim Hussain, who's the Green cloud advocate at Microsoft and a Green Software Foundation Board Leader gave a great presentation that was recorded  describing what it all means when you talk about net zero, carbon neutral, climate positive, carbon negative. So I would definitely recommend listening to that talk. I would also say, I think, you know, another Green I/O member formerly Chris Adams, I think he's a great thought leader in the space. He's the executive director for the Green Web Foundation. He's got a lot of great content. I actually just had a catch-up with him recently and we talked through some great things like how to deal with reporting when you have evolving data and methodologies in the space. So Chris Adams, Hussain, those are some great thought leaders in this space. In my opinion.

Benjamin: Another reference would be the work from Aurore Stephant about the beyond carbon stuff and the use of metal resources and the extraction.

Gaël: She has done an amazing three hours interview for a French online channel called …

Benjamin: Thinkerview!

Gaël: Yeah, Thinkerview! Thanks a lot. That was a great conversation that we had on many, many different topics. I especially enjoy how much fact-based you were describing very precisely what you can find in the different tools, what you cannot find, what are the issues,  being super super transparent about the lack of data and the fact that we are estimating rather than precisely assessing things. So thanks a lot. It was great having you on the show.

Benjamin: Thanks a lot for the invite and having me. 

Cameron: Thanks for having me

Gaël: And just a side question - and the answer will be recorded! How was it to join your first podcast ever?

Cameron: In my opinion. It was a great experience. I will admit my heart rate was a little higher during the first few minutes but it calmed down after a little while.

Gaël: That's because you talked about things that you masterize already. And what about you, Ben?

Benjamin: It was a smooth experience. Thanks for making us comfortable. You're a great host.

Gaël: [laughing] I just let people talk, you know, that's really the idea. You're the one with the knowledge. You're the one I want to put under the spotlight, not to shine for the sake of shining, but because I really believe that the work you do is highly available for the entire Tech community. So thanks a lot to both of you and good night for the two of us and good afternoon Cameron.

Cameron: Yeah, thank you. Take care of both of you. 

Benjamin: Thank you. Talk to you soon.

Gaël: My dear listeners, I hope you have enjoyed this episode as much as I did making it for all of you, the responsible technologists scattered all over the world! Our next episode will be live Tuesday 27th and as requested in the latest poll, we will talk about sustainable design. We will take a Eurostar train - virtually - to travel between Paris and London and meet Anne Faubry and Tom Jarrett, who are both great thought leaders in this field.

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