Legacy Carbon Auditing Obscures the Impact of the Cloud

Measuring the carbon or greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of an organization is a sophisticated undertaking. Traditional audit methodologies allow participants to "reduce" their footprints through externally-hosted IT and through "cloud" (SaaS) applications. This needs to change as more organizations become ICT-intensive.

Carbon footprints can be measured at three tiers:
1) The carbon directly emitted by the organization
2) The carbon emissions embodied in the energy it purchases
3) The carbon emissions from all other externalities

Anything that does not obviously fall into the first two gets swept into the third, which most carbon audits ignore. Yet tier three embraces the organization's entire value chain. This is problematic from an ICT perspective for a number of reasons.

Much ICT activity has always taken place outside the organization, particularly for telecommunications services. The popular of external hosting in commercial data centers moved more outside the organization. The cloud and its SaaS paradigm is further accelerating the exodus.

As organizations do this, they transfer more of their carbon footprint to tier three and potentially make their audits look better. While cloud-based ICT can have a lower carbon footprint, 100% of that carbon did not just disappear, even though the accounting at tiers one and two imply it did.

Another issue is the embodied carbon in ICT gear. The manufacture of ICT gear is a sophisticated undertaking, using considerable energy and global resources. Most ICT gear's life-cycle carbon footprint has been emitted before it reaches the user's shipping dock. Yet all this is relegated to tier three, as well.

The GHG Protocol, which uses a three-tier approach to carbon accounting, is working to improve this situation by creating methodologies for measuring ICT externalities. Draft documents which attempt to address the above issues are "Telecoms Network Service", "Cloud and Data Center Services", and "Hardware".