Toward zero: Reducing and offsetting our data center power emissions

Following the massive Australian bushfires earlier this year, I was motivated to act within my role as a data scientist at Automattic to help fight anthropogenic climate change. Together with colleagues from across the company, we formed an employee resource group focused on sustainability. We are pleased to announce that as a result of our efforts, Automattic now offsets data center power emissions produced from non-renewable sources. This means that the servers running WordPress.com, WordPress VIP, Tumblr, and other Automattic services contribute net zero carbon emissions to our shared atmosphere.

Measuring and offsetting emissions is not a trivial task. In the interest of transparency, this post provides more details on the decisions we made and answers questions that readers may have on the topic. We hope that this will benefit other organizations that are in a similar position to Automattic. We welcome feedback and are happy to answer any other questions you may have.

The decision: For 2020, we decided to purchase offsets from Simoshi via the United Nations’ offset platform. These offsets are produced by improving the efficiency of cooking stoves in Ugandan schools. Emission reductions are achieved by using less wood to cook the same amount of food. This project also has third-party certification from the Gold Standard, and it contributes to nine of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including No Poverty, Quality Education, and Gender Equality. See the project page and the following video for more details:

Why did we choose this project? Anyone who’s tried to purchase offsets knows that it can be complicated. We don’t have in-house sustainability experts, so we relied on publicly-available information to better understand the topic. Resources we found useful include: Carbon Offset Guide, atmosfair, and Greenhouse Gas Protocol. As the price of offsets varies widely, we chose to follow Microsoft’s approach and set our own internal price of $15 per metric tonne of CO2e. Simoshi’s project stood out because it matches our budget, has a clear emission reduction mechanism, is certified by the United Nations and the Gold Standard, and has many benefits beyond emission reductions, which align with our company’s values.

What emissions do our offsets cover? Automattic has servers in many data centers around the world, operated by different providers. As we don’t control the data center providers’ choice of energy utilities, we treat the emissions from data center power use as being in Scope 3, i.e., as indirect emissions from our value chain. For each data center, we used publicly-available information from our providers to determine whether they’re powered by renewable resources. This led us to conclude that approximately half of our data center energy use is covered by renewables paid for by the data center providers. For the other data centers, we used our servers’ power consumption logs to get the estimated power used over a period of one year. We then multiplied these figures by 1.5 to obtain a conservative estimate that accounts for power usage effectiveness. Using a variety of resources on grid carbon intensity, such as those published by the American Environmental Protection Agency and the European Environment Agency, we converted these power use estimates to emission estimates. This gave us an overall figure of 1,850 tonnes of CO2e for 2020.

Why offset rather than reduce emissions? We are aware that offsetting is an imperfect solution. Ideally, we would source all our energy from renewables. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t even be possible to buy energy generated by burning fossil fuels. However, given the current reality, setting our own price on carbon and offsetting non-renewable data center emissions is a good temporary solution. This also gives us a financial incentive to work with providers and shift toward greener data centers. In fact, this sort of shift happened last year when we changed our main European data center to a provider that operates on 100% renewables. We hope to continue making such changes in coming years, i.e., reducing emissions where feasible and offsetting the rest.

Why aren’t we doing more? From watching the climate action space, it seems like every announcement is greeted with demands to do more. This is a positive thing — society should hold companies accountable for their actions. As a company, we believe that we can always do better: The opening sentence of our creed is “I will never stop learning”, and we know that we are “in a marathon, not a sprint.” It is our hope that as we learn more about the space and our impact, we will be able to take stronger climate action.

What are we planning to do next? Automattic is a fully-distributed company. This means that our employees aren’t required to commute to central offices, which leads to significant savings in carbon emissions. However, we historically relied on flying to in-person meetups a few times a year to foster collaboration and bonding. Since March 2020, all business travel has been suspended, and it is still unclear what travel will look like in the post-pandemic world. In any case, as an employee resource group, we are planning on quantifying our travel emissions, and advocating for reducing avoidable trips and offsetting emissions from trips that are deemed essential. One change that is already taking place is aligning more teams around fewer time zones. In addition to helping with synchronous collaboration and decreasing isolation, this will reduce the distance traveled per person once meetups resume. We will share more on other actions we take in the future — watch this space! We also welcome feedback from our customers, so please comment on this post or contact us to share your thoughts.

Powered by WPeMatico