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Getting to Grips With Sustainability in The Cloud
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Getting to Grips With Sustainability in The Cloud

Philippe Petitpont
co-founder & CEO
March 28, 2023

With environmental responsibility and sustainability becoming increasingly part of regulation and customer requirements, Moments Lab has embarked on a journey to understand the impact of our work and technology on the world. In this first article of a series, we look deeper at why we’re investing in this process.

As good corporate citizens, we at Moments Lab (ex Newsbridge) are becoming more aware of our impact on the world, and have embarked on a journey to truly understand our carbon footprint. We’re aware that sustainability isn’t just about carbon, but we’re choosing to focus on carbon emissions as a starting point because we believe it’s our duty to do everything we can to limit our environmental impact. And you have to start somewhere.

Of course, it will come as no surprise that a modern company is trying to address its environmental impact. Regulators are getting increasingly stringent about environmental protections. Likewise, consumers and organizations are also demanding action, making more mindful choices about where they spend their money.

But there’s plenty of greenwashing out there: we want to make our work count for more than good brand sense.

Why is Moments Lab on This Sustainability Journey?

It’s easy to think that making things digital is better for the world - less clutter, less landfill, less space taken up. Yet, the digital sector actually relies on equipment and infrastructure that is networked across the entire planet. And the environmental impact of this infrastructure is proving to be increasingly worrisome. Researchers are devoting time to the direct and indirect impact of digital technology on the environment, and agree that the ecological footprint of digital technology is not only unsustainable, but is getting bigger every day.

According to estimates, the digital sector represents 2-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and energy consumption is growing by 9% each year - that is, it’s doubling every eight years. Behind these figures, it’s important to emphasize that video represents 82% of internet traffic, and the volume of data stored in data centers is experiencing hyper-growth of 40% per year.

As a SaaS (software as a service) company, much of Moments Lab’s applications run in or from the cloud - that is, we enable on-demand delivery of IT resources over the internet. Describing its AWS cloud service - one of the services we use - Amazon says: “Instead of buying, owning and maintaining physical data centers and servers, you can access technology services, such as computing, power, storage and databases, on an as-needed basis from a cloud provider.”

This cloud access has the unfortunate knock-on effect of obscuring or hiding a lot of emissions from direct view, purely because it’s not right there in the office, staring at you.

Our customers use our cloud-native, AI-driven technology as a media hub platform for live and archived content, saving them from needing a storage solution on-premises. With our platform, they manage and access live recordings, clipping highlights, future-friendly archiving, content retrieval or content showcasing, and monetization. We help them build sustainable and quick-access archives of content for their media platforms without adding to their estate.

All of that means an ever-increasing load is being moved to and accessed in the cloud.

For Moments Lab to move towards our long-term goal of better and more sustainable archive management, we must be able to understand the carbon footprint of everything we’re doing. And that means everything - not just counting emissions from travel or sending more to recycling. We need to understand the full scope of our emissions.

Navigating Complexity: the types of emissions we need to look at

Even though the term “carbon footprint” has been around a long time now, we still don’t have a precise way to measure total output - largely because regulations so far have not been very strict on reporting, leading to misleading communications. 

Let’s be clear: there is no way of physically measuring emissions across a whole value chain. And while we do have quite good ways to estimate these emissions, access to the right data is problematic, especially in the IT sector. As a result, the carbon footprint communications we see from companies are often misleading, or purposely incomplete.

That’s because there are three “scopes” of carbon emissions, according to the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.

  • Scope 1 emissions are fairly straightforward; these are the direct emissions from owned or controlled sources.
  • Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy - nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to energy generation, and half of that energy is used by industrial or commercial entities. These are the emissions that can be reduced by switching to low-carbon electricity. Both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions are mandatory to report on.
  • Scope 3 emissions are the trickiest to track, and so you’ll find a lot of hidden values and pure greenwashing. These emissions are the indirect ones that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions - and they are voluntarily reported. 

Shifting your archive from your premises to the cloud, for example, might reduce your scope 1 and 2 emissions and help your reporting look healthier, but it will add to your scope 3 emissions and ultimately to environmental woes.

The Big Issue: difficulties in understanding IT emissions

Unlike many other sectors - which, for several years, have benefited from standards or best practices for assessing their greenhouse gas emissions - the IT sector has been slow to acquire appropriate benchmarks and methodologies, in particular because of its great complexity. Consider the long and complex supply chains for ICT hardware, the wide use of shared resources requiring specific allocation techniques, even the complex and extensive features of ICT services which can vary within a single company’s customer set.

There are some references and methodologies that already exist to assess the emissions of digital equipment and digital services, but the sources of data for analyzing the life cycle of equipment are still very limited. This makes the total assessment work difficult. 

And then you have the “dematerialised” services of cloud-based activities, which are incredibly opaque and difficult to evaluate. Guidance suggests cloud services have three areas that need to be measured for emissions: the emissions of the data center, the network, and the end user devices. See how hard it becomes to get a clear picture?

These measurements are no longer a nice-to-have; they’re beginning to impact sales and investment potential. But how do you measure along the supply chain when you don’t have access to that data? We’re working on it, and we’ve engaged subject matter expert and external consultant Eric Ferrachat to help.

Digging Deeper Into Scope 3 Emissions

They’re not mandatory to report, so they’re easily overlooked - yet we are seeing scope 3 emissions becoming increasingly important for our customers and prospects. This increased awareness is a very good thing. Reducing scope 3 emissions means, among other things, that you are asking your suppliers to be more eco-responsible, your customers to be more sober, and it’s this collective effort that can affect real and lasting change.

We recently responded to a tender process which involved the procuring company’s sustainability officer. They needed an exact metric of all carbon to allow them to compare vendors. In our recent fundraising round, we found investors wanted to know our ESG progress so they could evaluate their portfolio. 

Scope 3 emissions take into account things like:

  • Purchased goods and services
  • Business travel
  • Employee commuting
  • Waste disposal
  • Use of sold products and services
  • Transportation and distribution
  • Investments
  • Leased assets and franchises

“There are a number of benefits associated with measuring Scope 3 emissions,” says the Carbon Trust. “For many companies, the majority of their greenhouse gas emissions and cost reduction opportunities lie outside their own operations.” This is especially true for a company like Moments Lab, since all of our IT infrastructure is in the cloud!

There’s no doubt we need to understand and track all of our emissions, not just those we must report on. But how can we get an accurate report from the areas we do not control?

We like the pioneer mindset; we know our reporting cannot and will never be totally accurate, but we want to be among the first to take a deep-dive into the subject, take it seriously, build and share knowledge with transparency, and help the community to grow.

Sharing The Learning: how Moments Lab is calculating its carbon footprint 

For example, among the data centers Moments Lab uses for its services is the AWS cloud. At the beginning of 2022, AWS launched a tool for customers to assess the carbon footprint linked to the use of its services. It would be easy to rely on this calculator and call it a day, but we noticed a huge difference between the AWS calculator and other state of the art calculation methodologies. Carbon specialists also told us the AWS picture was biased and unrealistic. 

AWS only takes into account scope 1 and scope 2, excluding a large part of the scope 3 emissions. In addition, AWS adopted a market-based reporting method; this tends to mask the physical reality of emissions from its data centers. They also don’t publish information on the energy consumption of data centers, and opt to fund projects to help forest owners sequester carbon - while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is not like-for-like offsetting.

So, without robust and reliable data, we sought another approach.  

The Impact of The Data Center

In assessing our carbon footprint, we’ve found it’s very difficult to gauge the impact of data centers on our carbon footprint. Currently there are two methods available to manually calculate the emissions of such services:

  • Method 1, or a bottom-up approach, requires identification of specific equipment associated with the service, and the measurement of this equipment’s energy use. This can be used when total emissions of a data center are unknown.
  • Method 2, or a top-down approach, allocates the total data center emissions using an appropriate method; for ICT services, this involves prorating the usage of the shared component.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the total value of AWS emissions, so we’re working on the bottom-up approach.

How We’re Collecting Our Emissions Data

Ever the pioneers, we’ve found there is no reference methodology for this bottom-up evaluation method. Instead, we’re leaning on the sustainability community, using some open source work, and building our own methodology to fill the gaps. In the next article in our sustainability series, we’ll look further at how we have learned from the work of Boavitza, Teads, and CCF. 

To start, if you want to estimate the emissions related to the use of cloud services, you have to understand how they work. 

First, understand the system

Overall, each user’s services (often computing or storage) perform operations on a Virtual Machine (VM), which runs in a shared manner on computer servers (IT devices, which host several VMs), within a data center.

Collect the data available from the cloud provider

Services and use of VMs are known data, because that is what every customer buys from their cloud provider. Usage data (reporting) is available on the billing consoles.

Identify the hardware running behind the VMs and its technical characteristics

It’s not always easy to know the characteristics of the hardware that hosts these VMs, in particular the energy consumption according to the load. This information is important for calculating our emissions.

Estimate the energy consumption of IT equipment

Once the hardware and its characteristics are known, many difficulties remain: what is its load rate (on which the energy consumption depends), and what part of this load can be allocated to our VMs and not those of other users? For storage, what is the replication rate?

Estimate total energy consumption

Once the energy consumption of the machines has been estimated, we must then take into account and apply the power usage effectiveness (PUE - data provided by the cloud providers) to know our total energy consumption. PUE is a ratio that describes how efficiently a computer data center uses energy; specifically, how much energy is used by the computing equipment (in contrast to cooling and other overhead that supports the equipment).

Estimate “operational emissions” of GHG

Once the total energy consumption is known, it’s time to convert it into GHG emissions (using the location-based method). Apply a conversion factor corresponding to the local energy mix for each data center, according to its geographical location (data provided by the electricity network operators).

Estimate embodied emissions

Finally, alongside the emissions linked to energy consumption, we must add the emissions linked to the manufacture of the equipment, which again implies knowing the equipment, and being able to access its life cycle analysis data. This is rarely easy.

It’s not a perfect science - yet

Even with total diligence to the cause, all of this work can only lead to a rough assessment of emissions. To date, and for lack of anything better, we are forced to accept the many limitations of this method and hope that the missing data will be made easier to access in the near future.

Measuring Output to Make a Better Future

We know this is a difficult path we’re taking, but we feel it’s important to dig deeper into the subject. We need to try, in a proactive and pragmatic way, to estimate the emissions linked to our services so that we can develop and put in place an action plan.

Moments Lab is committed to limiting our impact, to transparently communicate data to our customers to help them manage and reduce their own emissions, and help grow the community’s knowledge and ability to act.

We’re very close to being able to release the first real data from our experiments, so stay tuned! We’ll continue to share our methodology and results with the community so we can all work together towards a more eco-conscious digital world.

Have questions or need more information about our AI-powered cloud solutions? Get in touch with us.

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