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Carbon Impact Measurement and AWS: calculators and convenience.

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“If you want to influence AWS, get our customers to move capacity to green regions.”
– Adrian Cockcroft, then VP Cloud Architecture Strategy at AWS. MapCamp 2019. He is now VP Sustainability Architecture, Amazon.

Amazon Web Services recently launched its Customer Carbon Footprint Tool, making it easier to calculate the carbon footprint of the digital services you build and deploy on its public cloud infrastructure. It’s good to see AWS making information about carbon intensity more readily available to customers because it’s up to us to encourage Amazon to move farther and faster on carbon reduction. We have to be the pressure we want to see in the world, as Cockcroft’s exhortation above makes pretty clear.

To see the calculator go to the AWS console and look under “cost”. Jeff Barr has a helpful post on the new feature here.

The calculator, while welcome, is a version one product. We can expect it to improve over time.

An API would be helpful for example, so that developers could begin to build carbon tracking functionality into their apps, or access this data via their preferred command line tools or editors.

The calculator also doesn’t initially have an easy way to compare and model carbon intensity in different regions – that’s something that we will hopefully see sooner rather than later. Instead the calculator is initially positioned to illustrate the benefits of AWS hosting over self-hosting in your own data centres. Reasonable enough, but the real charm will be when customers can make better decisions about the sustainability of their cloud workloads.

So let’s talk about some AWS tactical concerns that touch carbon consumption.

It is absolutely in AWS’s best interests to see more customers using its ARM-based Graviton processors. AWS won’t need to pay for Intel or AMD processors, and ARM-based chips offer better performance at lower power consumption, a powerful combo. Here is a video of me talking to Dave Brown, VP of EC2 at AWS about Graviton performance advantages.

Let’s talk about US-EAST-1, everyone’s default AWS region. There are some good reasons to consider using alternatives. One – the energy mix in Virginia is unfortunately still weighted towards coal rather than renewable energy sources. The region has also had some significant outages. So customers can architect more resilient apps that also happen to take advantage of regions with lower carbon intensity when they consider redundancy. Of course redundancy carries its own increased footprint, but it’s almost certain that cloud redundancy is going to have a lower carbon footprint than traditional disaster recovery models.

Sustainability is now a pillar in the AWS Well-Architected Framework.

So Amazon is increasingly providing frames for its customers to think about sustainable choices. Humans are simple creatures. We want to feel good, to feel safe, to feel cool, to feel loved and desired. We want things to be easy. Convenience is the killer app. Amazon is a desire creation machine. If AWS makes it easy for us to lower our carbon footprints, and gives us a reason to do so, then we likely will. AWS touches pretty much every industry sector and company, and by giving us a lever to change its behaviour, it’s giving us a lever by which we can, and will, change our own.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge provides air cover for its carbon footprint mitigation strategies.

Amazon is committed to building a sustainable business for our customers and the planet. In 2019, Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge—a commitment to be net-zero carbon across our business by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.

AWS pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions across all operations by 2040. It has pledged to power all of its operations by renewable energy by 2025. It is also investing $2bn in decarbonisation technologies. Amazon claims to be the biggest buyer of renewable energy in the US today. It is encouraging other corporations to make similar Climate Pledges.

And yet as we know, pledges don’t always amount to action. Which is where we come in. We are, after all, the voice of the customer.

Amazon is the greatest engine for commerce in history. The company’s driving principle – “customer obsession” – implies that its strategic and tactical choices are always about customer requirements. But here is the thing. Amazon makes buying things as easy as thinking about them. One-click. Amazon Prime. Amazon Go – just walk in and grab some stuff for lunch and walk out – you don’t even need to make a contactless payment.

This is how easy it should be for its customers to make sustainable choices. The calculator needs to be as easy and familiar as one click shopping.

Amazon is a client, and I am an Amazon customer. I would like to think Amazon doesn’t actually make me buy things I don’t need, but it certainly makes it absurdly easy to do so. Does consumption have an environmental cost? Of course it does. One of the foundations of Amazon excellence is supply chain and logistics excellence. Combine that with superb customer service, and why wouldn’t you buy more stuff? But consumption always has an environmental cost.

And so let’s talk about Amazon Web Services itself. AWS completely revolutionised IT. It made technology use and adoption far easier than it ever had been before. There was no longer any need to ask for permission, no need to go through procurement, or ask your IT department for a database or server. Just give your credit card details and go. AWS as a packaging exercise for cloud delivered services, changed everything. But now we need to move beyond convenience to sustainability and that’s where calculators and measurement comes in.

Carbon Pledges and corporate values statements aside, very few companies today make technical decisions based on carbon footprint. AWS competitors such as Google Cloud and Azure have both been somewhat more aggressive about using renewable energy for their public cloud buildout, which has not so far been a major or notable differentiator from a customer acquisition perspective.

Google Cloud has a carbon calculator too – allowing customers to track their carbon emissions by region, product and month. Microsoft offers an Emissions Impact Dashboard.

AWS is obviously well placed to change customer behaviours at scale, but the onus is also on us to encourage that to happen. We need to demand more. We need to make it clear that Amazon needs to move further and faster. One way to do so is to use the Customer Carbon Footprint tool, and provide feedback asking for improvements. AWS product groups do listen, so be noisy about it.

And be sure to use U.S. West (Oregon), GovCloud (U.S. West), Europe (Frankfurt), Canada (Central) and Europe (Ireland) because AWS cites them for their environmental credentials.

Disclosure: AWS, Google, and Microsoft are RedMonk clients.

2 comments

  1. The slide/quote shown was from 2019, and in 2022 most of the AWS regions in Europe and the USA are “green”. The remaining work to do is largely in Asia, and to keep up with growing capacity demands everywhere. A lot of customers find their carbon footprint from energy use is zero or close to it already.

    1. Hi Adrian,
      Most regions are “green” because AWS buy renewable energy credits, not because CO2 is not emitted. It’s quite different from emitting no CO2.

      Low CO2 emitting region is a much better answer but the number of such regions must be pretty low since AWS does not communicate this information (while Google Cloud actually does).

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