Greening Digital #3 - What service design in a climate emergency looks like

The one written back in Berlin, after Chris got married, got permanent residence, and finally got some sleep.

The one written back in Berlin, after C got married, got permanent residence, and finally got some sleep.

Hello folks, and welcome to issue 3 of Greening Digital, back from my experiment in using an interrail pass for low carbon business travel around Western Europe, for two months solid.

Here’s the menu for today:

  1. Service Design in a Climate Emergency - Inspired by the activity on the #designandclimate hashtag, a workshop to explore what greening service design can look like.

  2. Greening the Cloud - Positive, measurable steps for reducing emissions, and good work being done around the world

  3. Link Grab Bag - developments that caught my attention, and are worth monitoring in future.

  4. Feedback - what made you sign up to this? Help me out - let me know.

3.1 Service Design in a Climate Emergency this Friday

digital transformation vs actual transformation - from Becky Miller’s reimagining of GOVUK

Are you in Berlin on Friday afternoon 29th November?

I’m working with some friends in the EdgeRyders, and Kathryn Hing, to organise Service Design in a Climate Emergency - a workshop for People Who Do Service Design* to discuss and work out the skills we might need to be able to face the unfolding climate crisis around us.

It’s happening in Kreuzberg, in a nice space on the ground floor, and if you’re in Berlin and free on the Friday, it’s free to attend.

*because not everyone who does has “service design“ in their job title.

Why run a workshop around this?

Here’s the space.

Put simply, while increasing numbers of us work in digital fields, and recognise the challenges around reducing carbon that a changing climate represent - see the #designandclimate hashtag) - loads of us still are not building any significant skills or capacity to actually address this in a meaningful way.

So, if we can accept that we don’t know yet what we need to know, then a useful next step is to identify the gaps in what we know.

We might need to think about how we’d have to deliver services in a world of legally binding carbon budgets. Or understand how already vulnerable people end up being exposed to even greater risks by the climate crisis.

If we know that, we can at least plan for it.

Well, that’s the idea anyway. We still have a handful of spaces, and it would be great to have a few more join us!

You see some more here on the info page for the event,  and you can sign up through the registration form as well (please persevere, I know it’s a pain).

3.2  Greening the Cloud

I’ve been working with The Green Web Foundation since March, trying to understand where some of the levers might be to help us understand and reduce the emissions from digital services. There’s a load of good work out there we’re finding. I wanted to share a few highlights.

AWS Green Cost Explorer - if you work in an organisation  that uses AWS, you can use this tool to query  Amazon’s own APIs and get an idea of what percentage of your organisation’s monthly bill is spent on infrastructure powered by fossil fuels. And move workloads away from fossil powered regions. 

Why would you do this? Here’s Adrian Cockroft, a senior VP of Cloud at Amazon Web Services telling you why, at Mapcamp, conference I helped organise. This is what they’re tracking, apparently.

Alternatively, Microsoft and Google already have public commitments around decarbonising their cloud, and are making better progress as well as being more transparent about this. So, if you use them, this is effectively done for you.

The downside here is that all three huge companies aggressively chase oil and gas business, and fund climate denialists. They’re so big now though, that we’re often in a position in tech where you only get to choose two of the following three:

  • avoid fossil fuels

  • avoid oligopoly

  • avoid running everything in-house (which is often horrendously expensive)

Anyway, Green Cost Explorer is open source, and the team is looking for contributors. Check it out on Github.

Greening the web if you don’t use AWS. As an aside, you can use The Green Web Foundation to check any site, to see how it’s powered, or if you prefer, use the free API. If you build websites, you can audit any site you use to see how much of it relies on infrastructure that relies on green energy, with Greenhouse, a plugin we made for Google’s Lighthouse, an open source web performance analysis tool.

Doing ML without the FML about the climate impacts of ML - There are some really interesting academic papers and software being released by the ClimateChangeAI group of late.

There’s the original paper on how you can use it to help address climate related issues, but if you are a practitioner or educator, there’s now software you can use to understand the energy usage of code you write, and subsequent CO2 emissions.

The accompanying paper, Energy Usage Reports: Environmental awareness as part of algorithmic accountability, is good, as well as teaching materials to incorporate into a curriculum for teaching.

How to purchase greener cloud services - if you control a budget and you purchase cloud services, there are two reports, released this year that are really worth checking out.

The first is a report from TechUK about attributing carbon to our use of cloud, and why it’s so hard. The second is some useful guidance from the Green Electronics Council in the US, with guidance on the kinds of questions to ask and evidence to look for.

Reducing the emissions of cloud storage - if academic papers and accompanying software isn’t enough, how about academic papers, software, hardware and a kickstarter about reducing impact from cloud storage?

One way that promises to reduce emissions by a stonking 77% compared to the normal providers is outlined in this paper, The carbon footprint of distributed cloud storage. What’s more, they’ve even set up a crowd funder for the hardware they’re manufacturing for it.

Rethinking the role of datacentres in cities - right now, most cloud computing happens in huge datacentres that are a bit like big box stores in retail parks. They spend loads of money getting rid of excess heat, because they’re often miles away from anything. 

Another approach for datacentres is to design them so they complement urban environments, by being smaller and more distributed, and finding ways to reuse the heat they generate. After all, finding zero carbon sources of heat is the next challenge we face after electrifying transport. This whitepaper from the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance is a nice way into the concept.

3.3 The link grab bag

These didn’t fit neatly into the topics above, but they seemed worth a look.

Oil is the new Data

The Microsoft of 2019 is in many ways one of the better companies around when we talk about the behaviour of tech giants, and if you’re subscribed to this letter, you may even know people who work there, or seen people congratulating someone getting a job there. This long article is a pretty damning account of the partnerships we’re seeing when big tech chases big oil money. It’s a taboo we’re still terrible at talking about. 

80% of developers would do something unethical if asked at work, but here’s why

This interview with Anne Currie has a pretty depressing stat that 80% of tech developers would do something unethical if asked, but the 25 minute long interview, is actually about the structures at work that lead to this happening, and steps to avoid it. For context, Anne is one of the folks behind the Sustainable Servers by 2024 petition.

Climate Just - a tool for understanding why some populations are more vulnerable to climate change than others

I found this in the past week. We have tools like consequence scanning as shared by Doteveryone, which help us have discussions about structural influences over what we work on, but this tool in the UK, looks really promising for identifying groups who might be harmed, by changes in how services work.

Local Authority Toolkit Launch - Cutting carbon while improving lives

There’s an interesting report out aimed at local government for rethinking how public services are delivered to achieve climate goals, but also improve lives. It’s accessible and uses language I wish designers working in digital companies knew how to use, as there are loads of useful concepts in it, with concrete examples. The day I see a service designer talking about co-benefits, I will dance.

3.4 Feedback

I’m  writing this with a friend of mine Martin Meyerhoff, and we’re trying to figure out why people sign up for this, so we can get into a nice rhythm of sharing useful stuff, as there’s loads we had to leave out this week. 

What made you sign up? What do you want to see covered in more detail here?

We’ll be covering low carbon travel in a future session, and (fingers crossed), there’ll be some new work about tracking carbon emissions at a project level for digital teams I think I’ll be able share soon.

But if there’s a burning issue you have, hit reply and let us know - we’ll work it into the schedule (yes we have one now!)

Ta!

Greening Digital #2 - OMGCLIMATE and how to hide carbon emissions 

The one written on a train from Chester to Glasgow, after hanging out at DoES Liverpool.

I’m writing this on a train from Chester to Glasgow, as part of my slightly ridiculous experiment of trying out interrail passes for business travel. So, hello from a train again.

Here’s the menu for today:

  • 1.1 OMGCLIMATE London on Friday 18th Oct

  • 1.2 A closer look at Amazon’s climate reporting, and the bit that’s a bit sneaky

  • 1.3 Link Grab Bag - developments that caught my attention, and are worth monitoring in future.

  • 1.4 A request for notes, and what you want to hear about

1.2 OMGCLIMATE in London on Friday Oct 18th

Are you in London on Friday Oct 18th?

Are you interested in a free unconference about tech and climate change, to explore the things covered in this newsletter with other like-minded souls?

I’m working with a few London friends to organise OMGCLIMATE, which is exactly that kind of event.

There’s a handy tweet about it you can share that links to an explanatory blog post.

We did one in Berlin earlier this year, and it was life affirming and informative in roughly equal measures - come along!

Getting tix

We’re releasing tickets in the coming days, but you can jump the queue with these top secret links:

If you'd like to see something done where you work about climate change. You're interested in exploring a question you've brought with others, or helping others do the same…

Register as an attendee - https://ti.to/omg/climate-london/with/pv9sq-awdgu

You're interested in coming, and you're up for helping facilitate a session too…

Register as an attendee and facilitate a session - https://ti.to/omg/climate-london/with/nvro-vic98o

Please don’t tweet these links, but it’s cool to share them with friends / colleagues - especially if it helps get more than just white dudes who program along.

1.2 Following up on Amazon’s climate announcement — the bit that’s a bit sneaky

In the last newsletter I spoke about Amazon announcing its carbon footprint ,and said this about their report:

after looking into the numbers a bit more and asking People Who Know, it looks like Amazon is doing something a bit tricky on reporting with their carbon numbers for electricity use.

Some people responded, asking what "tricky" means here, so I’ll try to summarise why the way they report isn’t ideal.

Disclaimer:  I’ve tried to simplify it as much as I can. I really have.

How you’re supposed to report CO2 emissions as an organisation

If you report CO2 emissions, there’s a generally accepted approach to talk about emissions in terms of  “scopes”. There’s stultifying, extensive detail available from the GHG Protocol, the organisation that defined the approach. I use this slide below to explain it in talks:

If that image didn’t help, here’s the abridged, textual version:

Scope 1 is from emissions from activities from burning fossil fuels yourself to heat buildings, power cars and so on

Scope 2 is from other people burning fossil fuels for you, so you can use the electricity you buy

Scope 3 is pretty much everything else in your supply chain. It’s often hard to measure directly, because to do it precisely, everyone in your supply chain needs to know and be able to tell you their own Scope 1 and 2 emissions. 

For context, here’s Amazon’’s footprint, with the numbers taken from their own sustainability site. They have their own fleet of plans, Amazon Air, so they have a lot of scope 1, and they run lots of servers, so they have high scope 2. They also have a huge supply chain, so big scope 3.

Now here’s Google’s own reporting, from their own sustainability report:

Google uses loads of servers, so of course they’ll have massive scope 2 emissions, but look how one of the graphs is so much smaller than the other - this shows how there are two ways report these kinds of emissions.

If you look only at the electricity used, and take the figures for carbon emissions for energy from the grid where Google run their servers, you end up with figures on the left. This is how much carbon is being emitted by using all that power.

This is because, for the most part, we get our electricity from a national or regional grid.

Why you have two charts

We don’t get to choose to only draw small-batch, free range, super green electrons that have only come from a happy wind farm. We just get electrons from the grid, and carbon intensity of that electricity will be an average of all the generation going in.

So, on a grid where all kinds of power stations, solar arrays and wind farms feed electricity into it, you’ll end up with a carbon intensity figure that might not represent your specific actions and choice of supplier.

Location based vs market based reporting

Because of this, it’s useful  to use location based reporting for electricity, like we see on the left chart. This gives us an idea of the actual emissions from the electricity at the point of use.

However, this doesn’t recognise the billions a company might pour into decarbonising their energy, which is not ideal. To incentivise that, it’s common to use the chart on the right as well, to show what the emissions are, after you take into account investments in green power, or other financial instruments you might use - otherwise known as market based reporting.

This is why Google has two figures.

One of them, called location-based reporting, gives it a carbon footprint of about 5million tonnes - for me at least, this feels like the honest one to use.

The other, using market-based reporting comes to 1.2 million tonnes - this sounds much better, and it at least gives an incentive to make these investments in the first place. But there is also a downside.

How to mislead people with these numbers

If you only report the numbers in the chart on the right - the market based reporting, two things can happen:

  1. you can mask the true size of your emissions from your use of the grid - as you’re only showing figure after your adjustments.

  2. you can also get away with making green investments that might be cheaper than others, and make you look good, but do very little to decarbonise the colossal amount of power that you do use

One example of these less effective green investments might be buying green power credits from where there’s loads of green energy already, like Scandinavia. You might then use them mask the emissions where the energy grid is much dirtier, like Northern Virginia, where most of the US data centre infrastructure is now located.

This is allowed if you want to follow guidelines around reporting to the letter. But then again, so is paying almost no tax on billions and billions of revenue if you’re a huge tech company. It might be legal, but whether it’s right is another matter.

What does Amazon do?

The figure used above, in their own report is yep, you guessed it, market based reporting. Their own report says so:

Amazon reports emissions according to the GHG Protocol’s “market-based” method, which accounts for renewable energy Amazon purchases to support its operations.

There’s also no location based reporting, nor information about what instruments are used for market based reporting.

This is less transparent than it should be, and yes, it’s dull, but it’s also important.

Okay, time to get out the rabbit hole. Thank you for coming with me on this journey.

1.3 Link Grab Bag - developments that caught my attention, and/or worth monitoring in future.

1.4 A request for notes, and what you want to hear about

Got something to say? Did I get something wrong? Is there an area you’re curious about being covered in future? Let me know, by replying to this email.

It helps me work out future content, and I’m finding the feedback I get really useful for motivating me to write.

Finally, as ever, feel free to share this newsletter with friends.

C

Greening Digital #1 - Amazon's Climate Pledge and Eco-costs

The one written on a train from Paris to London, after the 1st climate strike day

I’m writing this on the Eurostar from Paris to London, as part of my vaguely comical rail oddysey, trying out the use of interrail passes for business travel. So, hello from a train!

Here’s the menu for today:

  • 1.1 Analysis of Amazon’s new climate commitments, and a correction

  • 1.2 How you might respond if you want to do something similar

  • 1.3 Link Grab Bag - developments that caught my attention, and are worth monitoring in future.

  • 1.4 A request for notes, and clarifying that it’s okay to share this letter

A correction and some analysis of Amazon’s new climate commitments

Amazon released a new sustainability website, just before the big climate strikes. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in it.

In particular, the total carbon footprint of Amazon was released for 2018.

It’s about 44 million metric tonnes. That’s hard for most of us to get our head around, but the mental reference point I use is “about the same as Hong Kong, or Finland“.

That’s roughly 20 million tonnes more than Apple’s footprint for it’s products, at 25 million tonnes in 2018. I use "about the same as Mongolia".

Google’s carbon footprint by comparison, before they offset the last unavoidable emissions, was, according to their own report, was about 1.2m tonnes. If you prefer, “pretty close to Liberia”.

What I find more interesting though is, what Amazon is doing to quantify this figure, and how they’re set up to make carbon reductions.

The methodology is outlined here:

Our approach to quantifying our carbon footprint reflects the complexity of our business.

Our team of researchers and scientists have combined cutting-edge life cycle assessment (LCA) science and Amazon Web Services (AWS) big data technology to develop a robust software solution that processes billions of operational and financial records from Amazon’s operations across the world to calculate our carbon footprint.

The software estimates carbon emissions for all activities within our system boundary using a dollar-based environmental assessment model, then enhances the accuracy of carbon-intensive activities with detailed, process-based LCA models.

They give quite a detailed methodology in a PDF linked from the new sustainability site, explaining how they do it.

And in a promising note, they now have independent audit of their figures and verification of their approach, just like Apple. They even have the same guy called Trevor signing off on the reports! They now pass 3 of the 4 criteria I listed in the last issue. I was wrong about this in the last issue.

Note: after looking into the numbers a bit more and asking People Who Know, it looks like Amazon is doing something a bit tricky on reporting with their carbon numbers for electricity use.

Explaining it is pretty technical, but the short version is that they’re doing the equivalent to the "we pay the legally required amount of tax" line large companies, use, but for emissions.

They might meet the requirements on reporting, but it doesn't really follow the spirit of the reporting. Climate emergency, remember?

If there's interest, reply to this email, and I'll explain it in a future edition. It’ll take a few paras to explain, and this already a long newsletter.

Tracking environmental impact - top down versus bottom up

If you want to work out the carbon footprint of an activity or thing, you generally want to look at it’s entire life cycle. Indeed there’s a whole discipline around life cycle analysis (LCA), for this, and generally speaking there are two main approaches.

One approach is the top down approach. You take the total emissions figures for an country, or organisation, and economic output for a country, adjust for flows of material and capital in and out, to work out the carbon intensity of different sectors per unit of money (i.e. how much carbon is emitted per unit of money).

So the steel sector, which uses more energy, will have a higher carbon intensity per dollar/euro/pound than services sector, which uses less.

Then, based on the amount you’re spending in that sector, you can arrive at a carbon figure by multiplying the money amount by the carbon intensity.

This has the benefit, of being in wide use anyway, and is fast, at the expense of accuracy. More specifically, your accuracy is determined by:

  • how well you work out a carbon intensity figure per sector, and assuming you have spending data…

  • how well the categorisation of your spending matches the categorisation of this per sector

This is pretty close to the approach that CO2 Analytics use, and what I understand Normative, and Ecochain in Europe to use too.

The other approach is to go bottom up. If you're looking at a product, you look at every component that goes into it, and for each component, work out the carbon emissions that result from making it.

To do this, you need to know the carbon emissions for all the materials you're using, along with how emissions intensive the different processes you use are.

This is more accurate, but it's very expensive. You need specialised software, datasets that are often proprietary, and expensive specialists. We're talking 5 or 6 figures per product easily.

If you're doing it for a company, there is guidance on how to do this too.

The guidance largely says measure every activity you do, then apply some kind of conversation factor (we call them emissions factors) for all the energy and materials used, to get CO2 figures for all of them.

Again, this is accurate, but expensive and tedious.

So: top down is fast, and cheap, but can be imprecise, and bottom up is usually more precise, but often slow and expensive, and needs to be done for every product you might make.

Amazon's approach appears to be proprietary, but they do at least link to a bunch of academic literature in their report. This is good for a number of reasons, and as far as I can tell, their approach could be summarised as:

  • combine use of appropriate measurement techniques, to make the most of the resources they have to inform decisions

  • use a single synthetic, "full cost" monetary value to inform decisions for working out where to make meaningful reductions for the cash being spent

  • provide free hosting for sustainability data, so sustainability wonks flock there, and use this proximity to a community to maintain a lead over other companies in this field, by watching which datasets are used, and what practices emerge. This is looks a lot like the ILC strategy that i wrote about in this piece about Microsoft buying github in 2018.

What affect this might have

We already have binding legal carbon reduction targets in the UK. It looks like we'll have them soon across all of Europe too.

This is good, but I think there's a chance this push for sustainability might end up having some similar effects on the tech industry as GDPR did.

The introduction of GDPR had good intentions, but in many ways helped entrench existing, well resourced companies who could afford to sort out compliance early.

Smaller players (who -  let’s be fair - often weren’t being careful enough with data anyway), had a hard time dealing with GDPR, and the bigger ones were able to make hay while much of their time was spent understanding how to comply.

I think the same might happen with climate and sustainability in tech.

On the first read, I am impressed by Amazon's approach for quantifying emissions, and sufficiently underwhelmed by the capacity of the rest of the industry to do this, that if climate is finally taken seriously, I think it might entrench their dominance in the sector even further.

1.2 Doing something like this if you're not Amazon

That said, you don’t need to be Amazon to be able to use this approach of combining top down methods fora high level overview and bottom up models for specific processes.

In fact, I was going to suggest exploring it as a strategy in a workshop later this month with a new client, to start out with working out the emissions for delivering a digital service. Seeing a trillion dollar company essentially say the same thing was some welcome validation.

How it might work

The input output data for the top down figures is published by public sector sources in many cases. Here’s EXIOBASE, a common, publicly available database of the kind of source data used by Amazon’s own top down metrics. The industrial ecology community uses it a lot.

The bottom-up data figures are also published, often by governments. Here’s DEFRA’s latest one for cars in the UK.

If you wanted that single dollar value thing, to help prioritise, you’d need some defensible approach, that ideally isn’t proprietary, and hard to challenge.

Last year, I think I found one.

I was introduced to it by Dr Isabel Ordonez, who told me about the work at TU Delft on EcoCosts.

EcoCosts is a similar idea to the single dollar amount mentioned by Amazon:

A synthetic number to take into account the environmental impact associated with different materials and activities, that reduces down to a single numerical value.

Here's the mental model I use for regular costs of a service. If the value people perceive is greater than the price they pay for it, people are happy. If your costs are lower than the price they pay, you’re happy too.

And here's the mental model I use for Eco-Costs. It’s designed to capture the other costs we have too. In the case below, the ecocosts are now higher than the price, so we’re much less happy.

It's typically used in the bottom up product design process, and there are curated datasets showing the ecocost for all kinds of materials, and even a smartphone app for quick and dirty LCA analysis to settle an argument in a pub.

Isn’t this reductive?

Yes, this approach is massively reductive. But you can make the argument that at least it's explicit, compared to the implicit approach we typically take when making these calls.

Right now, we typically incentivise people to make the financial numbers add up on delivery of a service above everything else, with any other costs as secondary.

For example, in the UK, we literally use cost of transaction as performance criteria in digital service standard.

I can imagine a scenario where you might use something like an EcoCosts value for top down, broad strokes analysis of most of your organisation's activities. You'd combine that with bottom-up figures measured in some EcoCosts-like unit, for the key things you do or make. This would at least give you a single dimension to work with in a similar manner to how cost of delay works, to help inform decisions reducing the emissions from running a service, or making a thing.

If you’re an industrial designers you’ll have tools like materials, energy, toxicity matrices to help to this, and they’re taught to undergrads. I’m not aware of similar things for service design though, and when I ask professional service designers, the ones I’ve asked haven’t come across any either.

Summary

We have the data and ideas already out there. But not in a nice package. I can imagine us shifting from cost per transaction to “some value to account for carbon” per transaction, in the light of binding legal targets on carbon emissions in the public sector.

The approach from Amazon is likely reductive, and any similar single number approach will be unavoidably lossy anyway, but it may be better than what lots of orgs use right now, and I think is worth exploring.

1.3 Link Grab Bag

1.4 Shouting into the void

How was this? Let me know reply to this email. I'm enjoying the feedback.

Also, do please forward this to others who might be interested.

There's an uptick in interest since last Friday, but there are still too few of us talking about what to do next, in the face of a changing climate.

Chris

Greening Digital #0 - What to expect

The one sent on the global climate strike day (well, one of them)

Greetings,

I’m writing this from a small rented room in Barcelona after, announcing this newsletter yesterday. Amazingly, enough people have signed up to make this experiment worth going ahead with. Thank you!

I’m still not sure of the best format for this newsletter, and I’m trying this format to bring make it easier to receive thoughtful responses to what I’m writing, and force me to arrange thoughts in a more coherent way.

Here’s the menu today. Skim as you see fit, but if you do, please let me know where did glaze over:

  • 0.1 A litmus test for tech companies that suddenly, visibly care about the climate emergency

  • 0.2 A thing to try if you can’t join a strike, but still care - minimum viable protest

  • 0.3 Link Grab Bag - developments that caught my attention, and are worth monitoring in future.

Cool? Let’s go.

0.1 - A litmus test for tech companies taking the climate emergency seriously

If you’re subscribed to this newsletter, I assume you’re aware there’s a global climate strike taking place today, in a good number of large places around the world.

Lots of companies are talking about supporting the strikes, or letting people take time away to attend them, or making announcements to show that they are doing their part too.

And given there’s been this rash of tech companies sharing information about how green they are, I figured it might be nice to open with sharing a simple test I now use to help detect greenwash in tech companies, along with the reasoning behind for each part.

This is informed by my understanding of how bad things really are climate wise, and it really isn’t designed to take away from the heroic efforts from dedicated employees in companies, who are making them better.

Maybe greenwash is too strong a term.

I’d appreciate a better phrase if there is one, but for now, here’s my definition of greenwash I’m working with.

When I see “wash”, added to a term, like greenwash, or purposewash, I take it to mean actions that give the impression of an organisation taking a given issue seriously, that means it gets the credit for doing so.

However, instead of actually following through with the action that you would expect to see if they did take the issue seriously, the organisation invests money in making it look like they are instead, and cuts corners wherever it thinks it can get away with it.

Why this matters

If we want to do the right thing ourselves, because we’re all interconnected, and rely on help from other organisations, this makes the act of choosing who to work with much harder, and it lets organisations get away not doing enough.

Which means, collectively, we keep accelerating towards disaster.

An example

A a good example would be a company like BP plastering display ads about how excited it is about wind power on in its corporate communications, using pics like this:

When you see this, you’d be forgiven for thinking

Look at that happy dog in all the wind! Doesn’t BP stand for something like Beyond Petroleum these days anyway? Maybe things aren’t as bad as people are saying, and we don’t need to do much.

The reality is, investments from big energy companies look more like this set of charts from 2018 in the Graun. It’s got a slightly better of late, but not that much better:

That’s not so good.

So, here’s the test I use now when I’ll be reading the announcements in more detail.

I generally assume greenwash from an organisation if I see a shiny looking website, but I see:

  • no public commitment to net zero emissions

  • no public timeline to reach net zero emissions

  • no public independent audit of progress on the way

  • no disclosure of % business coming from fossil fuel companies

I’ll run through these in detail now:

No public commitment to net zero emissions

The science has said for years now, that we need to more than just stop increasing emissions. There is a carbon cycle, and we need to stop being net emitters of carbon into the sky.

This might be hard, but the science is basically settled. Settled enough for there to be legally binding targets for countries to be following, and more on the way.

This really needs to be up there in terms of organisational priorities along with we will earn enough money to pay our staff and suppliers. It also needs to be a thing you might be able to ask about if deciding to work with an organisation. Making it public helps.

This is not a niche thing any more. You can see an how many countries and companies already have net-zero targets with this report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

No public timeline to reach net zero emissions

If the science says we need to reach zero emissions, on a specific timeline to avoid the worst impacts from climate change, then we don’t get to negotiate on this timeline, like we might negotiate about which features make it into a release, or when we want to ship something.

When there aren’t public targets, it’s easy for companies to quietly ease off their efforts to change, and delay them - because right now, structurally, there’s a greater incentive to do things like hit a given revenue target by a certain date (We make our bonus! We keep our job!), than reducing emissions by a given date (when was the last time you heard of someone being fired for missing carbon reduction targets?).

There’s a good term from this delay now from Alex Steffen - predatory delay, which I find useful.

This was one of the key things the Amazon For Climate have pushed for, and this was in the shareholder resolution employees used to get the discussion on the table in the first place. Speed is justice.

No public, independent audit of progress along the way

Of an organisation has public targets, and you don’t have to blindly trust a single source with figures or statements where there’s a clear incentive to (see above) to make it look like you’re doing better than you really are, a few things happen.

First of all, there’s at least a chance that that people in leadership positions have to explain why they are missing the targets, to stakeholders.

Secondly, it’s possible to make comparisons between organisations. No one wants to be at the bottom of a league table that everyone else can see, and we know that these are a useful tool to bring about action.

Also, the most commonly accepted ways of tracking your own emissions rely on this. If you want to have an accurate idea of what your the emissions are in an organisation you work in, you really need an idea of what the emissions in your supply chain are. In most orgs, more than half of your emissions from your supply chain.

I’ve now had countless conversations, in public and private sector people which largely go along the lines of “how can I work out my own figures, if I’m reliant on $HUGECORP, and $HUGECORP won’t give me the figures that I depend on to that?”.

This is done right now, but not universally.

Apple does this, including statements from a third party it in their own reports (see appendix C). Google have nice reports about their datacentres but they also get independent verification like this. Even smaller companies at least provide statements from their energy providers.

No disclosure of % business coming from fossil fuel companies

I don’t think this one applies to every organisation, but because once again, the science is utterly settled here, that burning more fossil fuels is incompatible with any targets we might have to avoid further harm from a changing climate.

If it does apply, it’s really, really important, because without this, I really think the enabling of really, really destructive activity will keep happening.

Often companies that otherwise would do pretty well on the top three will still continue to prioritise earning decent sums supporting these companies, while at the same time saying how green and compassionate they are, with no real incentive to stop doing so.

If you had joined a company thinking they really care about science and justice, and then you were assigned to a project to help out one of the fossil fuel giants, there’s a chance you might feel you’re in a position where you can leave, or turn it down. For many people who just want to get on with their lives, that’s much less likely.

There’s also an increasing body of evidence, that making it harder to get cheap finance or insurance fossil fuels, has been one of the key drivers in encouraging them investments in alternative forms of energy. Don’t listen to Bill Gates here, listen to Michael Leibreich instead.

This is already being done in creative agencies in with the Creative Climate Disclosure project. If you’re in a company that already does work with fossil fuel companies, being grown up enough to admit the conflict and talk about it, at least makes it easier to have a discussion about not doing it in future, and give an way out for both parties.

If an organisation isn’t passing this test, is it a bad one?

There will be very few companies that are passing all the tests above. Does this mean they’re all full of terrible greenwashing people?

In a word, no.

So much of this is structural, and I think the system we’re in makes hypocrites of us all.

Ad the same time, I think many of us are in positions where we can push for things like the above, and we know how high the stakes are. I wish there was nice way to say, yeah, the default sucks, but we still need to change it.

0.2 A thing to try if you can’t join a strike, but still care - minimum viable protest

If you’re unable to join the climate strikes, but you still care about the people who will be affected by our changing climate, there’s an interesting thing happening on the #11at11climatestrike hashtag on twitter.

I learned about it in the ClimateAction.tech community, which I’m an active part of.

The idea is as follows:

  • At 11am, step outside of to work, for 11minutes. This is about as long as a long cigarette break, or cup of tea.

  • If others join you, use it to start a conversation among you about how you feel about climate at work.

  • Take a pic, or if you have a sign, include that.

  • Share however you feel appropriate to create social proof.

  • After 11minutes head back in.

  • Repeat on an ongoing basis on Fridays.

This is much easier to start than demanding a full day off, and the main feeling I’ve heard back is relief that they’re not alone in feeling strongly about this.

A number of companies have been doing this for a few weeks now in support of the kids and their #FridaysForFuture protests.

Link Grab bag

Okay, there, this is already too big, but I want to share them with you.

  • I’m running a meetup around climate and tech in London thus coming Wednesday. Come say hi if you’re in town! I’ll also be doing one in Glasgow in October too, as part of my low carbon developer relationships tour on an interrail pass.

  • Amazon made a pretty huge announcement last night about aiming for net zero emissions by 2040, and entirely renewable energy by 2030. It passes two of the four criteria for test above. Here’s Amazon’s new microsite. Here’s Amazon For Climate’s response. Here’s my reply on twitter when asked about it.

  • There’s a bunch of interesting events and discussions around the design of public services in a climate emergency on the #designandclimate hashtag on twitter, and a series of workshops going on around the world exploring it.

  • There’s some interesting stuff going in Switzerland about coming up with an alternative model to us relying on huge centralised cloud datacentres for the IT services we need, from the folks at OpenComputing.cloud. The approach is largely based on finding ways to use and pay for capacity in existing spare datacentres, to avoid needing to create new buildings full of whirring machines in the first place. This also opens up the possibility of integratin datacentres into the design of cities in a much more complementary way, and use the heat they produce to heat homes, rather than citing them miles away, and using loads more energy trying to get rid of the heat, which is the current default.

  • It also paves the way for shifting computing workloads to wherever the energy is cleanest and greenest in the world, as discussed in this academic paper released earlier this year, for a low carbon kubernetes scheduler. That paper outlines a working example run on Microsoft’s datacentres, and I’d be surprised if heliocentric computing doesn’t become a thing.

How was that?

I’m still figuring out the format for this whole newsletter. Please let me know which bits worked for you, and which bits didn’t, and I’ll take it into account for the next one.

Thanks!

C

Greening Digital

Join me as I share everything I learn about greening the way we build digital products.

Hi, I’m Chris. I've been working in environmentally focussed tech orgs for the last 15 years, and I’m trying out a newsletter with my friend and collaborator Martin, to help make it easier to write about what we’ve been learning along the way.

Who we are

I’m currently a director of the Green Web Foundation, an organiser of ClimateAction.tech, and I run a tiny climate ‘n’ tech co-working space in Berlin with a Martin.

Martin studied climate policy for Master's degree in Political Science and Public Administration, and has been working as professional software developer, as well as spending the last 5 years teaching at Berlin’s Open Tech School.

Why are we doing this?

We're trying to figure out how to make greening digital a thing we can do, full time, as a day job, in 2020, as it feels like one of the most useful things we can do with ourselves, in the middle of a climate emergency.

But for now, during September and October of 2019, I’ll be joining the 1ft high club, travelling around Western Europe on an Interrail pass, and working with people on different open source projects in this field.

This is partly an experiment in seeing what low carbon developer relations might look like, and partly an excuse to visit people and projects we’ve learned about over the last 15 years, and share it back here.

You can sign up below.

In the meantime, tell your friends!

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