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Partnering for change: SilverLining






Clarissa van Emmenes

Partnering for change: SilverLining





Clarissa van Emmenes

In the second Q&A interview in our partnering for change series, we talk to Hugh Walcott: technology consultant, entrepreneur and co-founder of climate-tech startup We dive into his personal sustainability journey, the increasingly important role digital technologies have in achieving sustainability, and how SilverLining's partnership with Cogo sets a new precedent for reducing the world’s digital carbon footprint.

Tell us about yourself, your background, your current role and your passion for sustainability

Born in Canada, and raised in Wellington, I always had a love for the great outdoors. When not climbing, skiing or tramping, I was coding or building elaborate cyphers to hide things from my nosy sisters. This eventuated in a degree in Electrical and Electronics from Canterbury University in '94, and then a career travelling the world as a power systems engineer. Essentially I was responsible for the design, build and commissioning of large-scale battery backup and switch-mode power systems for global data centres. I got to see the inside world of communications infrastructure, including a deep understanding of the resources used to power the Internet.

With the rise of the web revolution, I transitioned to software engineering and held several leading roles, including engineer for the world's first internet e-cash transaction, IT architect for the world's largest real-time Java application (adaptive traffic light management), and since returning to NZ, solution architect for Kiwisaver and the NZ BowelCancer Screening Systems. It felt like there was no limit to the sort of problems software systems could fix.

And then came Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth'. This opened my eyes to the mother of all problems, environmental sustainability, and for me, shone the light on the real role technology needed to play. At last, there was a real hairy problem in need of a real scalable solution.

In 2012, I founded my first climate-tech start-up, EnviroManage, a SaaS business offering an ISO14001 tool for managing corporate carbon emissions. A little too ahead of the compliance market and closed up shop in 2016, but had some success, including a late pivot to report on sequestration for carbon forests.  

Seeing climate change as a bigger systems problem, my next start-up, StrataMap, was a more generic modelling tool designed to help visualise and manage complex risk landscapes. While some modelling of climate risk was undertaken, StrataMap's key success was with banks, corporates, and government agencies looking to manage business transformations and cybersecurity compliance.

Since Covid, I had been looking for new opportunities to get 'back to climate', and oddly enough, it was a small tool I built and a casual conversation that gave me the next climate-tech leg up. My drive for a sustainable business accumulated in StrataMap being one of the first NZ SaaS companies certified as Carbon Neutral. As part of this, we measured the digital carbon footprint of our product. It always irked me that we had to use AWS's data centres in Sydney for hosting our SaaS product, knowing that 80% of NSW electricity was powered by coal. The measurement tools provided by our certifier Ekos failed to take this into account, so we built a lightweight energy and emission calculator based on our AWS usage from their billing API.

When I mentioned what we did to Brian Johnston (Head of Impact at Cogo) one day, we both got excited about the opportunity this had for wider ICT sector change. After more research, I developed a calculator into an energy efficiency and multi-cloud emission inventory offering and undertook two audits of Cogo’s AWS carbon footprint, a baseline report in 2021 and a full inventory report in 2022.

So in short, my current role is still evolving but looks to be a mix of technology and sustainability consultant, entrepreneur, and now evangelist for a sustainable ICT sector.

Can you share a little bit more about SilverLining’s purpose and how that ties in with your overall values?

SilverLining's mission is to enable a more responsible, transparent and environmentally positive digital sector.  

It's my fundamental belief that digital services can lead the way to a truly regenerative economy, but there’s a long way to go. Currently, much of the sector is powered by dirty energy, with digital carbon emissions surpassing that of global aviation in 2019 and on track to double in impact every 3-4 years. Furthermore, while e-waste represents only 2% of global waste, it contributes 70% of toxic waste to landfill. Nearly all these impacts are happening out of sight, masked by greenwashing providers who are building giant data centres full of short-life equipment all over the networked world.

Yet, there is lots of good progress too.

The digital sector plays an increasingly crucial role in combatting the climate crisis, and there have been massive gains in ICT efficiency and transparency, and much of the industry is on track to being carbon neutral by 2030. There are also big changes in the supply chain for digital services, with governments adding climate risk criteria to their procurement processes and the financial sector (big ICT consumers) reporting their digital carbon emissions under new mandatory disclosure obligations.

With change comes opportunity, and that is what is all about.

We are a group of sustainability and ICT professionals committed to engineering a positive outcome for our low-carbon transition.

The short-term opportunity is to help IT retailers build customer loyalty and generate new revenue streams. By combining the usage data from cloud provider billing APIs with open source energy models, we generate a more accurate and fine-grained footprint while at the same time dramatically reducing the cost of IT carbon reporting. Our website currently has a free IT Impact Benchmark tool designed to help retailers get an overall picture of their cloud asset impacts, benchmarked against others in the sector.

The longer-term vision is to scale environmental sustainability across the IT sector globally. We are currently developing the platform for this in conjunction with local cloud service retailers. Would love to hear from anyone interested in helping or joining our beta program, either as a cloud computer consumer or retailer.

In what ways can digital technologies have a positive impact on the environment, and how can we encourage the adoption of these technologies?

I believe the digital sector offers a great opportunity to drive positive social and environmental change in a number of ways:

- Data systems. Digital systems can be used to collect current and historical records of our impacts, including pollution from human operations, land use, ocean, and social and ecological systems.

- Information systems. Aggregate environmental datasets, model environmental system dependencies, and report findings to stakeholders, regulators and investors.

- Insight systems. Enable effective collaboration, develop policies, monitor controls and predict outcomes of action and inaction.

- Adaptive feedback systems. Deploy intelligent positive and negative feedback loops to drive social change and optimise land and resource use.

Does your partnership with Cogo enable action, and how?

The Cogo and SilverLining partnership represents an opportunity to leverage the learnings from Cogo’s two digital carbon footprint assessments (2021 and 2022) and to help unblock a new category of emission reductions for businesses with large digital assets. We’ve designed a service that allows all businesses with a digital presence to measure their carbon footprint and take action to reduce emissions.

I see this focusing on three primary barriers businesses face with environmental responsibility:

Where to start

Cogo seeks to help unblock this by integrating with Xero and other cloud-based accountancy providers, assessing impacts based on cost, and automating an SME’s sustainability action roadmap. For many items, like digital services, this approach is not very accurate. Presenting generic or inaccurate roadmaps will erode trust. By partnering with SilverLining, businesses with digital footprints will receive more accurate measurements and tailored actions appropriate to their technology stack.

Lack of prioritisation

With the recession looming, most businesses are under increased financial pressure, and actions not aligned to financial objectives are pushed down the road. By helping Cogo’s Business Carbon Manager product to shift the focus from emissions reduction to increasing energy efficiency, SilverLining offers a win-win way to align business and IT strategy, and reduce operational costs at the same time.

Risk of transition

Most progressive sustainability actions require significant business change and are too high risk when assessed using standard risk governance methodologies. By contrast, SilverLining offers some businesses low-risk climate mitigation action, e.g. by identifying non-production cloud services that can be migrated to cleaner energy sources using a single line of configuration code.

How can companies be incentivised to reduce their digital climate footprints, and what role can consumers play in this process?

Some emerging motivations that would incentivise faster change:

- Government procurement: There are hundreds of small businesses providing digital services to public entities. Central government procurement rules are increasingly using carbon impact as an evaluation criterion. In NZ, this is reportedly now 10% of new procurements, exposing many technical service providers as not having any emission reporting.

- TCFD reporting: Global financial service providers are increasingly obligated to measure their operating emissions as part of TCFD reporting. This includes scope 3, and includes thousands of suppliers who are now indirectly exposed to these new emerging obligations.

- Cost savings: businesses looking to reduce IT opex will be motivated to consider the energy they need for their digital services versus the energy they are actually using. Initiatives to optimise cloud resources,  thereby reducing carbon emissions, are increasingly a high-priority item.

- Energy costs: As demands on electricity increase, so too does scrutiny on consumer applications that are energy hogs such as blockchain, ML and AI. Reporting of energy efficiency and type will increasingly become an important metric for consumer choice.  

- Data centre choice: Customers can opt to host their AWS, Azure or GCP cloud environments in over 30 countries and tend to choose a location based on proximity to their markets. By selecting a low carbon, high energy efficient (colder climate) data centres adjacent to the market, consumers can apply pressure on cloud providers to not just ‘offset their emissions but to apply real emission reductions at scale.

What are some of the long-term implications of a high digital carbon footprint, both for businesses and for the environment as a whole?

As technological change accelerates, so does businesses’ consumption of cloud data and computing services. While some minor energy efficiencies have been gained from the recent hyper-cloud evolution, without a fundamental change in culture, the energy demands and carbon footprints are set to accelerate in line with demand.

The carbon footprint of the IT sector has already surpassed aviation. This is driven, in part, by the high carbon footprint of server component manufacture but also the increasingly short lifespan of modern cloud servers, currently only 4 years.

New big data technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain are also contributing to the sector's carbon footprint. If the digital sector fails to adopt sustainable resource practices, we can expect to see more hyper-scale data centres built in hot countries near populated areas instead of focusing on building high-efficiency data centres in colder regions. Additionally, there will be more token renewable energy projects created away from populated areas to offset cloud provider carbon footprints, leading to more greenwashing by some providers.

We will also see more exploitation of green energy finance by cloud providers instead of making meaningful changes towards a low-carbon and circular sector. This will lead to more toxic e-waste being sent to landfills or disposed of illegally instead of reusing or recycling server components.

Ultimately, businesses will bear the cost of dirty energy and e-waste as environmental compliance costs increase and IT/energy resources become scarce. Finally, there will be more risk to critical business systems hosted in high carbon-intensive areas that fail to align with Paris Agreement emission targets.

Find out more about Business Carbon Management on our product page.

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