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Amazon Web Services (AWS) is coming under pressure to provide easier access to more detailed data about its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as the cloud giant’s government and enterprise clients prepare for the environmental footprint of their IT estates to come under tighter scrutiny from regulators.
Regulators and governments in multiple countries are prepping regulations that will put the onus on enterprises to transparently and accurately report their Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 GHG emissions.
However, accessing Scope 3 emissions data pertaining to their use of Amazon’s cloud services is something the majority of AWS users are having ongoing difficulties with, Computer Weekly has learned.
For example, the governments that form the nine-strong Digital Nations forum, which includes the UK, New Zealand and Canada, are known to have been demanding more detailed GHG emissions data from AWS for several years. “AWS has made efforts and we have welcomed those, but it’s not been what we require,” said a source close to the organisation. Computer Weekly put this claim to AWS, but the company declined to comment.
Given AWS’s “customer obsession” is often talked about by its senior leaders as being a point of competitive differentiation for the firm, the fact its users are demanding Scope 3 data and not getting it is absurd, said Aerin Booth, who is the founder of the Cloud Sustainably consultancy, as well as an AWS community builder.
“The frustrating thing is ‘we’re customer-obsessed’ is their tagline, but customers are actually asking [for this] and getting nothing,” they said. “There’s probably literally thousands of requests sitting in [the AWS] inbox from customers ... saying ‘we care about sustainability’ in the form of support tickets, private conversations ... and they’ll claim that not enough customers are asking for this.”
In contrast, Microsoft and Google have offered customers access to carbon footprint measuring tools that allow them to freely track the Scope 1-to-3 emissions associated with their cloud use since 2021. But Amazon’s take on the same functionality, in the form of its AWS Customer Carbon Footprint Tool, was released in March 2022 and is unable to provide users with Scope 3 data yet.
What are Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions?
- Scope 1 emissions are those directly generated by a company’s own operations, including company-owned and controlled facilities and vehicles.
- Scope 2 emissions are in considered to be indirect, as they are generated by an organisation’s energy purchase and usage habits. The more fossil fuels a company uses, the higher these emissions will be.
- Scope 3 emissions are generally considered to be the hardest of all to track, because they are emissions generated by an organisation’s wider supply chain, which includes its suppliers and customers.
And with regulators circling, the fact AWS customers cannot readily access this information is a growing cause for concern.
“Regulation is coming from every direction,” Mark Butcher, director of sustainable cloud consultancy Posetiv Cloud, told Computer Weekly. “There are UN mandates, and the UK government procurements are now insisting that anyone who’s trading with them [in] over £5m worth of projects have to report their emissions.”
There are mandates on GHG emission disclosures coming from the US-based Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), he said, and – since 5 January 2023 – the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) has also been looming large on the horizon too.
The CSRD is a notable EU directive because all large companies and those listed on regulated markets are in its scope, along with their subsidiaries. Furthermore, non-European companies are also required to make disclosures under the CSRD if they generate more than €150m in the EU and have at least one branch or subsidiary based in a member state. It is estimated that around 50,000 companies will be in its scope.
And while it officially came into force at the start of this year, large companies in its scope will have to apply its reporting rules for the first time during the 2024 financial year.
“There is a lot of regulation and legislation coming down the road and if you ignore the complexity of what they’re asking – all of it broadly comes down to the same thing: you must transparently report your Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions,” added Butcher.
Which is something the majority of AWS customers are unable to do. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what action regulators will take against firms who cannot provide Scope 3 emissions data.
“That’s the issue right now,” said Butcher. “No-one actually knows what the impact will be or what will happen if enterprises can’t get access to this data. It’s a farcical position, but what’s not helping is AWS not providing any clarity on when this situation with its Scope 3 data is likely to change.”
What AWS can do, though, is manually provide Scope 3 emissions data under non-disclosure agreements (NDA) to customers. But this is a luxury it only affords to its biggest clients, as publicly confirmed by Adrian Cockcroft, who served as the vice president of sustainability architecture at AWS until June 2022.
“If you really need Scope 3 [data] from AWS and you’re a big enough customer, you can escalate and they [will provide] estimates to people under NDA, but that’s true of pretty much anything you want custom from AWS,” said Cockcroft during a presentation at the Qcon software development conference in late March 2023.
“If you’re big enough and you ask the right people, they will usually give you things under NDA – information that isn’t publicly available.”
UK government calls for clarity
The UK government, specifically, has been demanding more detailed GHG emissions data from its cloud provider partners since 2018, as detailed in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Greening government ICT: Sustainable technology annual report, published in October 2019.
As stated in the 2022 version of the report, “all hosting suppliers, including cloud, [have been] formally asked to provide energy consumption/carbon data relating to the services [government departments] are consuming,” and Computer Weekly understands that AWS continues to hold out on providing its UK government clients with Scope 3 data.
“UK government have been trying for four years to get Amazon to give them the data they need, but they can’t get anything out of them,” said Butcher.
“I have big enterprise clients, some of them spending billions a year on cloud, that are getting increasingly impatient at not getting anything out of [AWS] as a result,” he said. “The biggest challenge is that most of these [enterprises] want to make better decisions and reduce their emissions, but they can’t because they can’t get the data from Amazon.
“And it’s a big problem because if you can’t make fact-based decisions [about your sustainability strategy], you can’t make improvements and you can’t measure the improvement either. It’s a mess.”
Why don’t AWS cloud customers vote with their feet and leave?
If AWS users are not getting access to the data they need and are fearful of falling foul of regulators, it is logical to question why its customers do not consider jumping ship to Microsoft or Google’s public cloud platforms.
And, according to the people Computer Weekly spoke to for this article, there are three main reasons for this: cost, complexity, and time.
Enterprise adoption of Amazon’s cloud services are often described as taking a “land and expand”-type form, as users steadily grow the amount of data stored on its servers and extend the range of services they use within its broader portfolio over time.
“Amazon is a labyrinth. All puzzles and mazes are designed to trap us in some way or another. And you think about these technology people who open up Amazon’s console and see 300 different services and have no idea how to string them all together,” said Booth.
“It’s like basically throwing people - tech workers – into a spider’s web. You sort of get stuck in it and you’re looking at it and you go, ‘Wow, what do I do?’.”
And when enterprises get fully entrenched in the AWS platform it can be very difficult to remove themselves and migrate their data elsewhere, said Butcher. “When you start using all of Amazon’s brilliant tools and capability, it all starts to layer on top of each other as the services integrate and it’s just really complicated to unpick and – for a lot of enterprises – immediately falls onto the too hard pile.”
It is also costly to migrate data out of the AWS cloud, added Mytton: “The problem is it’s either very difficult and time-consuming or it’s very expensive to move all the data out to somewhere else, because AWS don’t charge you to get data in but they do charge you to get data out. The network egress fees are very high, which makes it more difficult to leave.”
Both these issues are ones that regulator Ofcom flagged as a matter of concern in its interim report into the inner workings of the UK cloud infrastructure market, which called out both AWS and Microsoft for indulging in anti-competitive behaviour.
Published in early April 2023, the 222-page report said its investigations had found that the hyperscale cloud firms charge users far more to transfer data off their servers than “most other providers” and the cost involved can “discourage customers from using services from more than one cloud provider and in some cases can make it more costly to switch.”
Furthermore, these firms also impose “technical restrictions on interoperability” that prevent their services from working effectively with those offered by other cloud providers, which puts customers at a disadvantage because they have to put “additional effort into reconfiguring their data and applications to work on different clouds.”
The report added: “We are concerned that a significant number of customers, especially those with more complex requirements, may face material barriers to switching and multi-cloud. We are most concerned in relation to AWS and Microsoft [about this], given their market position and the fact they display some form of all the above behaviours that limit competition.”
And, even if enterprises are able to get the data they need from AWS under NDA, they can – in Butcher’s experience – find themselves limited in what they can do with it.
“The problem with it is that no-one can validate the quality or accuracy of the information [being shared under NDA],” he said. “I’ve also had it where they’ve offered me an opportunity under NDA to understand a specific customer better, and they told me I wouldn’t be able to share some of that information with the customer themselves. I told them no.”
Scale and scope of disclosure
Given that multiple governments around the world are struggling to get the data they need, it does pose another question: how big and influential does an organisation have to be to get AWS to share its Scope 3 data under NDA?
“To give a specific example, Netflix was able to publish their emissions for many years. That information was not generally available to all AWS customers, so you have to assume [that is] because Netflix is a massive AWS user,” University of Oxford sustainable computing researcher, David Mytton, told Computer Weekly.
“It’s all very well if you’re a very large company, but what about everybody else? If you wanted to do the right thing, and the data is not available, then that’s a real challenge for continuing to use platforms like AWS.”
As revealed by Computer Weekly in February 2023, the AWS sustainability team has lost a succession of senior team members over the course of the last year, which is thought to be a factor in why it is taking the firm so long to make its Scope 3 data more readily accessible to customers.
Furthermore, Amazon confirmed in an email to staff in November 2022 that it was implementing a hiring freeze, which is also thought to be a factor in why the sustainability team members that have left are yet to be replaced.
Among the departed are the aforementioned Cockcroft and Christopher Wellise, who served as AWS’s director of worldwide sustainability and carbon for two years, before leaving in January 2023.
In the month since Computer Weekly’s article about the team departures dropped in February 2023, Mary Wilson, global partner lead for sustainability at AWS, has also left the company.
Wellise’s remit, however, included overseeing the ongoing development of the AWS Customer Carbon Footprint Tool. He previously acknowledged in an interview with the now defunct tech publication Protocol in July 2022 that AWS users would like the tool to provide more insights, including Scope 3 emissions data.
Read more about cloud sustainability
- The second annual Google Cloud sustainability study reveals that economic uncertainty is forcing some enterprises to cut corners on their sustainability strategy to save money.
- Microsoft has confirmed its suite of sustainability-focused software-as-a-service tools, which are designed to help enterprises shrink their environmental footprint, will become generally available from 1 June 2022.
In the wake of Wellise’s departure, sources close to the company told Computer Weekly that work on updating the tool to include Scope 3 emissions has “slowed to a glacial pace”.
This point of view has been publicly confirmed by Cockcroft in posts on LinkedIn, shared in the wake of Computer Weekly’s February 2023 story, and during his talk at Qcon, where he assured attendees that Scope 3 emissions data is something AWS is working to provide its customers with. “Fundamentally, they are working on it, but they’re taking their time,” he said.
Computer Weekly asked AWS for an update on when its Customer Carbon Footprint Tool is likely to be updated to include Scope 3 emissions data, but the company declined to comment.
It did, however, refer Computer Weekly back to the statement it provided for the February 2023 story on the personnel changes within its sustainability team.
“Any suggestion that a few departures from the company impact our commitment to sustainability is false,” a company spokesperson said. “Amazon’s hiring strategy, inclusive of AWS, has no impact on our goal to build a sustainable business for our customers and reach net-zero carbon by 2040.”
To emphasise this point, the company reiterated that Amazon reached 85% on its goal to power its entire operations on 100% renewable energy by 2025 several years ago in 2021.
“And we’re making progress on our recently announced commitment to make AWS water-positive by 2030,” the spokesperson added. “These are just two examples of how we’re continuing to invest in fighting climate change and decarbonising our operations to help solve this crisis.”
What’s taking so long?
The UK government’s March 2023 Mobilising green investment report states that Scope 3 can make up anywhere between 80-95% of an organisation’s total GHG emissions footprint, and be the trickiest of all the Scopes to calculate.
“A key barrier to [Scope 3] data availability in value chains is the capacity of businesses to generate and report that data,” the report added.
It can be difficult and burdensome data for businesses to generate, particularly where small-to-medium-sized enterprises are concerned, the report acknowledged.
AWS, meanwhile, is the world’s largest cloud company, and – as previously mentioned – its hyperscale rivals have been providing their clients with Scope 3 emissions data for several years. And some of its smaller rivals are also making confirmed headway on this front.
Playing catch-up on sustainability
Finding itself playing catch-up with the competition on sustainability matters is not necessarily a new thing for AWS.
Nearly a decade ago, the environmental lobbying group Greenpeace called out AWS in its report into the tech industry’s green energy habits for lacking transparency when reporting on its carbon emissions and energy usage.
The Greenpeace report, published in 2014, described AWS as the “least transparent of any company we evaluated” in terms of its energy consumption.
For context, Google was lauded in the report for the work it had done to improve the energy efficiency of its IT operations. Microsoft, meanwhile, was described as being a tech firm that was “taking steps toward a greener internet, but not leading the way”.
The 2014 report is not the only time AWS has come in for criticism from Greenpeace, as the two parties also locked horns in the wake of the latter publishing another report in 2019 that suggested Amazon’s growing datacentre footprint in the Loudoun County region of Virginia, US, was fuelling demand for fossil fuels in that area.
It is worth noting that AWS contested the contents of the Greenpeace report, accusing the organisation of “choosing to report inaccurate data” about its operations and ignoring how much the company has invested in renewable energy projects in that region of the US.
In response, a Greenpeace spokesperson told Computer Weekly at the time that it does acknowledge the amount of renewable energy deals AWS has done in the past, but it is difficult to ascertain the collective significance of these contracts because of how secretive Amazon is about its energy use.
“Unlike other leading internet companies, which have steadily improved their transparency and environmental reporting since Greenpeace began our evaluations of internet companies in 2010,” the spokesperson added.
French AWS challenger OVHCloud announced in April 2023 that its bare metal cloud customers will be provided with Scope 3 GHG emissions data related to their use of its services from this summer. By the end of this year, the same will be true of its private cloud customers, while users of its public cloud services will have to wait until 2024.
“The point I keep making is that AWS claim it’s hard to [provide users with Scope 3 data], but this is a company who’s been capable of investing in a million other things,” said Butcher. “They’ve got billions of cash in hand at the bank to invest in solving problems, but this doesn’t seem to be something they want to solve.”
Amazon’s business has been hit hard by a post-pandemic economic downturn, with its most recent run of financial results showing a marked decline in the year-on-year revenue growth rate of AWS, which the company has repeatedly attributed to its enterprise customers looking to tighten their belts.
As reported by Computer Weekly in March 2023, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy announced 9,000 jobs are set to be eradicated from the company over the coming weeks, with AWS one of three departments set to lose personnel.
News of this comes hot on the heels of Amazon setting out plans to cut 18,000 jobs across the company in January 2023, with the company citing a need to “streamline costs and headcount.”
From the outside looking in, Mytton said the slow progress on giving customers access to Scope 3 emissions data could be due to Amazon concentrating on more revenue-generating activities during these difficult economic times.
“A lot of companies were really focused on sustainability because they could afford to do it and there was loads of free money everywhere,” he said. “Now we’re in a much more difficult economic environment, with layoffs, and there’s more of a focus on profitability. It seems like sustainability initiatives are potentially being a victim of that.”
For AWS customers that are unable to access the Scope 3 data they need under NDA, there is the free-to-use open-source Cloud Carbon Footprint tool, which is sponsored by London-based technology consultancy, Thoughtworks, and could provide them with some stop-gap insights, added Mytton.
“That looks at your billing data and then tries to do some calculations to know what your emissions might be,” said Mytton. “The main use case for the tool was before the cloud providers had their own calculators, but the methodology behind it is consistent across all three cloud providers. So it means you can make comparisons between them.”
“The challenge is that [it] uses publicly available data, whereas the cloud vendors use their own internal data, which will be more accurate, but you really use it for audited reporting and to get an idea of your emissions,” he said. “And that’s often good enough.”