Changing the Mix: Dr. Sutton-Parker explains VMware’s Zero Carbon Committed (ZCC) strategy

In February 2023, Dr. Sutton-Parker was approached by VMware to offer his views on the global technology company’s Zero Carbon Committed strategy. The following social media article was published in April, 2023.

In my opinion, the VMware Zero Carbon Committed (ZCC) initiative enables diffusion of renewable energy on a global scale.

This is achieved by leveraging the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UNSDG) number 17, partnerships for the goals by encouraging Cloud Verified partners to become trusted sustainability partners. In doing so UNSDG 12, responsible production and consumption, is realised in concert and ultimately goal 13, climate action, is made feasible.

My PhD research field is computer science, specialising in the abatement of IT related GHG emissions. Such activities are important because IT already generates over 2.5% of global GHG emissions caused by hardware production, use and end of life processes.

IT is a mature market serving over 4.2bn users. As such, changes in human behaviour such as emphasising sustainability as a criterion for IT, can help to realise wider net zero aspirations. The perspective is shared by the UN, indicating that such changes will contribute to lowering societal emissions in the immediate term, allowing time for long term key abatement strategies, such as renewable energy diffusion, to grow in both capacity and adoption.

Related to both strategies, energy is a vital area of focus for IT and climate action. On average, 30% of all IT GHG emissions are derived from use-phase scope 2 emissions created by the consumption of purchased electricity.

The rule of thumb when examining an IT offering’s total carbon footprint make-up is relatively simple. The longer active use is and the higher the power draw, the greater the percentage contribution of scope 2 emissions will climb when compared to scope 3 supply chain emissions. This is true unless strategies such as 100% renewable electricity supply are encouraged to reduce carbon emissions. At which point, scope 2 emissions can become arguably irrelevant from an environmental perspective.

Data centres draw vast amounts of power and are in most instances always on. This is in stark contrast to a personal computer, such as a notebook, that may only be used by one user for a few hours per day. In computer science this is called the use-profile and is used to calculate electricity consumption and ultimately scope 2 GHG emissions.

Electricity consumption is measured in kilo-watt hours (kWh) and is simply power draw multiplied by the amount of time power is required. As such, from a demand perspective 10 kWh used in the USA is exactly the same as 10 kWh used in the UK. When calculating GHG emissions, results differ based on location as national conversion factors are used based upon the carbon intensity within the electricity grid. In simple terms, the more renewable energy mix within an electricity supply, the lower the GHG emissions will be.

As an example, the UK is increasingly adopting low carbon electricity generation such as wind, hydro and solar power energy generation while the US has been slower to transform and as such has a higher on-going reliance on fossil fuel generated energy. Consequently, 10 kWh of electricity consumed in the UK produces 2 kgCO2e of scope 2 GHG emissions. Comparatively, the same 10 kWh consumed in the US will generate approximately 100% more emissions at 4 kgCO2e. This emphasises the need for increased availability of renewable energy sources if the world is to uniformly reduce IT related scope 2 GHG emissions.

Arguably the diffusion of green energy is the responsibility of national governments. However, my research paper of 2015 called, ‘CSR as a driver for the adoption of cloud computing’ challenges this perspective suggesting that cloud service providers can also play a key role. The paper discusses both power usage effectiveness (PUE) to reduce kW per byte ratios and crucially carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) to reduce CO2e per kW. This latter aspect determines the quantity of emissions generated per kWh consumed by accounting for how ‘green’ the electricity is that is associated with data centre operations. 

I use the word ‘associated’ intentionally. Because of electron fungibility no single user or data centre is guaranteed to physically receive purchased green energy (unless directly connected to a renewable source such as solar panels) as the electricity grid mixes all electricity sources into one supply. However, as increasing numbers of data centre operators invest in renewable energy and related supply projects, then the balance of green energy versus fossil fuel energy within each grid changes for the better.

In simple terms, even if it is ultimately an unsuspecting household or office block that benefits from lower carbon electricity supply created by the action of the cloud service provider, the net result is that total scope 2 emissions are reduced and avoided.

Should we be able to achieve such initiatives at scale, the ability to influence and increase the percentage of clean energy in a national grid has the potential to extend beyond government infrastructure projects to include cloud service providers as drivers of change.

But scale is difficult to create unless we embrace UNSDG 17, partnerships for the goals. The idea being that as a collective we can act and drive climate action far quicker than in isolation.

When enterprises move workloads from on-premises datacenters into public clouds, their responsibility shifts from scope 2 (electricity) and scope 3 (embodied) into scope 3 emissions (services), where the cloud provider becomes accountable for its stewardship. Customers want to know the environmental impact of the choices made in their upstream supply chains making cloud carbon tracking and transparency necessary.

And that’s why I believe this is exactly what the VMware Zero Carbon Committed (ZCC) initiative enables. By encouraging Cloud Verified partners to become trusted sustainability partners and working towards achieving 100% renewable energy-powered and carbon-efficient VMware clouds, the scale of renewable energy adoption and investment becomes truly global.

In doing so cloud computing services in partnership with this initiative offer the ability to ‘change the mix’ in the grid and ultimately help to build a more sustainable environmental future for coming generations.

As such, if you haven’t already, it may be worth joining the VMware Zero Carbon Committed initiative. Or perhaps seeking out services from those who already have signed up and begin to adopt the concept that CSR and ESG is a driver for the adoption of cloud computing.

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