Carbon emission reduction - it's not easy being green, but Orbus and Salesforce are setting a pace

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 31, 2022
With predictions over climate change becoming ever more cataclysmic and energy prices mounting daily, the time is ripe for tech leaders to start exploring ways to cut the carbon footprint of their own internal IT infrastructure. But as Orbus Software and Salesforce reveal, doing so isn’t quite as easy as it might seem.

carbon reduction

The tech industry is estimated to generate between 1.8% and 3.9% of total global carbon emissions.  So at a time when such emissions are at dangerously high levels, if global warming is to be minimised and energy prices are through the roof due to the war in Ukraine, the situation should be giving IT leaders pause for thought. In some cases, it is.

But according to Harvey Nash Group’s Digital Leadership Report, organizations are not taking as much action to cut their own internal IT-related carbon footprint as you might think. The study points to the fact that data centers worldwide account for about one percent of total electricity usage, while data transmission networks are responsible for between 1.1-1.4%.

However, it also reveals that, while boardrooms around the world may understand that introducing greener technology would help to improve their carbon footprint, actually doing so remains low on the tech-related priority list, coming in only second from bottom. Unsurprisingly then, a mere 22% of tech and digital leaders have made much progress here – even though intentions of boosting tech investment have risen at the fastest rate (60%) for a decade.

But another problem in this context is that reducing the carbon footprint of the technology itself presents a huge challenge, particularly for smaller companies with limited resources.

Creating a robust baseline to measure change

In fact, a significant issue before you even begin the process, says Rupert Colbourne, Chief Technology Officer of Orbus Software, which employs 150 staff and has pledged to become carbon negative, is collecting the data necessary to create a “robust base line to measure change”. He explains:

Getting data is a big problem – for instance, you have to go through purchase ledgers and look at things like usage and waste before putting all the information into the [Planetly carbon management] system, so it’s a lot of manual effort. If you take waste, for example, we lease property for our offices, and electricity and waste management is included.

So trying to do things like source itemized bills to work out emissions is quite challenging. If you’re looking at purchase ledgers for software, the financial team has to get involved and you have to go through it line item by line item. It’s also necessary to work out what the software usage is and how many licenses and user sessions are running. Even trying to establish how many emissions third party software itself is creating is challenging as most software vendors don’t publish emissions data.

Once the required data has been entered into the Planetly system, however, it will then be possible to use the tool to undertake hot spot analyses, with the aim of better understanding in which areas action is likely to have the biggest impact.

Orbus, which provides cloud software to support digital transformation, has already started taking action to hit its carbon negative goals though. One such approach has been to migrate many of its internal systems to the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, which runs on renewable energy, and also to replace inefficient hardware, such as printers, with more energy-efficient ones. Such moves have already helped to reduce the firm’s emissions from 80 metric tonnes in 2019 to 60 in 2021. The goal is to cut the figure again to 40 by the end of this year.

Difficulties in working out total emissions

But the supplier is not the only company to have discovered how complex it is to track emissions. According to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, a mere 9% of organizations around the world are able to quantify their total emissions comprehensively, with effective measurement being the most significant roadblock.

Around four out of five of the 1,290 companies questioned failed to report at least some internal emissions from their own activities, while two thirds did not report any external emissions related to their value chain. The error rate when undertaking measurements was also between 30-40%.

One organization that has been working hard to get all of this right for the last decade though is Salesforce. It now uses renewable energy at all of its locations around the world and announced it had achieved net zero status across its entire value chain last year.

Key to doing so, believes Eric Gertsman, the firm’s Director of Data Center Planning and Sustainability, was creating a framework for action in the shape of a Climate Action Plan. This focuses on six sustainability priorities: Emissions Reduction; Carbon Removal; Trillion Trees & Ecosystem Restoration; Education & Mobilization; Innovation and Regulation & Policy.

For example, a key activity in the Emissions Reduction category has been to decarbonize the supplier’s IT and data center infrastructure. The first step here was to cut energy usage by as much as possible because as Gertsman points out: “The greenest electron is the one you never use.”

Introducing Carbon-to-Serve measures

But he also indicates that not all infrastructure does the same amount of work for every kilowatt hour of energy it consumes. In fact, until the company created a new metric it has named ‘Carbon-to-Serve’, it had no good way to talk about variations in the efficiency of its infrastructure, spot anomalies and fix them:

Carbon-to-Serve measures the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions that it takes to deliver services for various products that are part of the Salesforce portfolio. Being able to look at one specific number and analyze its variations - by geography, by product etc - has been incredibly helpful as we work to decarbonize our IT infrastructure. Today, we’re using Carbon to Serve to analyze the efficiency of approximately 90% of our colocation data center infrastructure, and it shows an 18% improvement over the past year.

Overall, the vendor’s goal is to reduce the carbon intensity of its entire global infrastructure by at least 10% each year from 2023. Gertsman explains how it intends to do so:

Using Carbon-to-Serve as a metric, we can quickly identify the impact that different data centers, rack groupings, and product clouds have on our infrastructure emissions. This allows us to quickly take action to increase efficiency. For example, one particular outlier in Carbon-to-Serve showed us that the automated decommission of some equipment hadn’t occurred as planned. We were still using energy to power and cool machines that we weren’t actively using, resulting in wasted energy and causing our Carbon-to-Serve metric to show a significant jump. Monitoring this metric helped us quickly identify the problem and fix it.

Other action Salesforce has taken to cut its carbon footprint is to ensure that all of the co-location data centers with which it enters into new deals must use renewable energy and have “high-efficiency, water-free and zero-waste infrastructure”. Any remaining emissions are then dealt with by purchasing high quality carbon credits.

Ensuring sustainability

Another requirement is that all suppliers sign up to a Sustainability Exhibit as part of the firm’s standard contracting process, making clear its preference for working with partners that commit to climate action. Furthermore, all new hardware purchases are made based on their energy-efficiency levels and all software code is written with this in mind too. Gertsman explains:

Writing more efficient code is key since building more efficient software means we can achieve more with each kilowatt hour of energy we use. This is true across both physical data centers and the public cloud, so it’s the most critical part of our strategy since its impacts are felt across our entire infrastructure footprint.

A second vital move, Gertsman believes meanwhile, was to add sustainability to the company’s core values this year to sit alongside trust; customer success; innovation, and the equality of every human being. As he points out:

These are fundamental to how we run our business and what we do to serve our stakeholders…By embedding sustainability into our operational decisions, we aim to further avoid and reduce absolute emissions across our value chain. Our objective is to reduce absolute (location-based) Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions as quickly as possible, with a goal of 50% reduction by 2030 and near-zero by 2040 relative to a 2019 baseline.

In IT infrastructure terms, this means cutting emissions by 75% compared to business as usual, he adds.

A third “key way to move the needle on climate action”, however, has been to introduce voluntary, annual ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting. As a result, the company has released a Stakeholder Impact Report every year since 2012.

To help with its carbon impact reporting, Salesforce also uses its own Net Zero Cloud offering, which not only provides insights into how it can achieve climate goals that conform with science-based targets, but also undertake what-if analysis to show progress in achieving them. The system likewise tracks Scope 3 emissions across the supply chain and captures waste management data all in one place.

My take

Although tech companies of every stripe are promising stakeholders a more sustainable future by committing to net zero over the next few years, the experience of both Orbus Software and Salesforce illustrate just how complex and difficult it is to make this vision a reality, even with their own tech. So unless such a move is pushed to the top of the priority list and becomes embedded in strategic planning and policy, it is, unfortunately, likely to amount to little more than greenwashing.

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