Beacon

How Beacon went climate positive 🌍

Chris Houghton Posted on 16th Jan 20 by Chris Houghton

Last month we announced that Beacon has gone 100% climate positive. In this article, we'll tell you how we got there.

When we started Beacon, we decided to build a company that made the world a better place, not a worse one. For this reason, last month we announced that Beacon has now gone climate positive (beyond carbon neutral).

For any person or organisation wanting to go "carbon neutral", there are two possible options:

  1. Don't emit any CO2 emissions at all
  2. Try and reduce CO2 emissions, calculate what's left, and "offset" them

Option 1 will always be the best option, but unfortunately it's entirely impossible in today's world. Want to get on a train? The train emits CO2 to get you from A > B. Buying a laptop? CO2 was emitted in its manufacturing and shipping.

This is precisely why option 2 is the way to go, as long as it's done in combination with reducing emissions where possible.

Carbon offsetting is an approach that compensates for your CO2 emissions by funding projects that remove CO2 from the atmosphere elsewhere.

For example, two recent projects that we've funded (though our partner Offset.earth) include the building of wind farms, or improving the efficiency of cooking stoves:

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 11.16.06

For us to be able to reach climate positive status, the most important thing we had to calculate was our carbon footprint. That is - how much CO2 in the atmosphere Beacon is responsible for. With this knowledge, we could then offset those emissions.

As Beacon is a highly flexible database (plus we're using it every day), we decided to build a place to track and report on our carbon footprint:

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 11.27.29

In the rest of this article, we'll look at the 6 main sources of our CO2 emissions, and how we calculated the footprint of each.


1) Equipment

As a technology company, we don't have a lot of equipment! Just a few laptops, mice (the technical kind), keyboards, and computer screens.

Many providers like Apple (who provide most of our equipment) provide information about the estimated CO2 footprints of their products. For example, a 13" Macbook Pro with retina display has a carbon footprint of 176kg:

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 11.32.14

The full Macbook Pro 13" retina display report is here.

Unfortunately Apple don't provide CO2 footprints for all of their products (like keyboards or trackpads), so it's not possible to calculate everything. Where this is the case, we've made overestimates in comparison to information that is provided on laptops.

E.g. we're tracking the CO2 footprint of a wireless keyboard as 75kg - that's 43% of Macbook Pro! (It's likely be much lower in reality)

For non-tech equipment purchased, we take a similar approach: use the footprint if available, and make a heavy overestimate if not.


2) Employee commuting

Commuting to and from work every day also has a carbon footprint that we feel responsible for.

For most forms of travel, this calculator from carbonfootprint.com is a great resource. It provides a CO2 estimate based on the amount travelled, and the method of travel.

For example, let's say one of our team commuted to work on the train 10 miles each way, every day. That's 20 miles/day, 100 miles/week, or 5,200 miles/year (assuming no holiday, which of course we provide 😀).

Using 5,200 miles/year, the calculator comes to 260kg CO2/year.

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 11.46.41

Again, it's important to deliberately overestimate here. In reality, many of the Beacon team walk or cycle to work, or travel significantly less than 20 miles/day.


3) National and international travel

We often drive, take the train, or sometimes even fly in order to visit Beacon customers and partners.

For international travel, again, the carbonfootprint.com calculator can be useful. We keep a record of all travelling done, and use those numbers to calculate its footprint.

For example, 2,000 miles of national rail travel is 130kg of CO2:

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 11.57.53

For plane travel, we've been using the CO2 calculator from MyClimate:

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 13.48.47

For example, a flight from London > Berlin is 415kg CO2.


4) Cloud computing

We're on to a more tricky calculation now. The entire Beacon platform runs in the cloud, on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The cloud is greener

As we've talked about before, the cloud is far more green than running a database on-premise, in your office or otherwise, according to a recent report commissioned by AWS:

Screenshot 2020-01-15 at 12.10.27

As you can see above, the majority of the reduction in CO2 footprint is due to efficiency, rather than renewables.

Is London green?

AWS have already made significant headway towards a goal of 100% renewable energy powering all oftheir infrastructure. Many of their "regions" are already powered 100% by green energy.

However, London is not. And all of the Beacon servers (currently) run in London, as the location of data storage is important to our customers.

While there have been quite a few suggestions indicating that AWS is using ~30% green energy in the "non-green" regions, we've made the assumption that London is 0% green.

CO2 footprint of servers

AWS does not provide any information about the CO2 footprint of their servers. To handle this uncertainty, we've taken some inspiration from the team at Go Climate Neutral.

The CO2 data provided on this high-end Dell Server is particularly useful. This is a typical server that might be used by AWS. This gives us a ballpark figure of the estimated amount of CO2 to manufacture a server (~1,283 kg CO2), as well as it's energy usage: 1760kWh / year.

The UK Government provide the estimated CO2 emissions / kWh: 0.283kg.

Given the above, we can use the cost of an equivalent server on Amazon Web Services to calculate an approximate kWh year, and CO2 footprint for Beacon's servers.

This estimate is likely to be an overestimate, as:

  • AWS is likely more than 0% green in London
  • The cloud is more efficient
  • This calculation assumes AWS don't take a margin in profit (they do!)

5) Food

We often buy meals for the Beacon team! As such, we want to track the CO2 footprint of this food to ensure that we're offsetting accordingly.

BBC News reported last year about a study on the CO2 footprint of different types of food:

104751648 range chart 640 v2 3x-optimised-nc

We don't buy team lunches every week, and while we're not logging the CO2 footprint for every individual meal, we're roughly estimating that every employee creates a 10kg CO2 footprint from food, every week, or 520kg CO2 / person / year.

Again, this number is likely an overestimate for us.


6) Office energy

Last but not least - the energy needed to keep the lights on and the office warm!

We're working in a shared office, so it doesn't make sense to use the actual power usage for the entire block. As such, we've taken inspiration from the G20 Energy Efficiency Indicators to calculate an estimated kWh / employee in the UK: 4,373 kWh.

As mentioned earlier, the UK Government provide an estimated CO2 emissions / kWh in the UK: 0.283kg.

Based on this, we can calculate the estimated CO2 footprint per employee as: 1,238kg of CO2.


There we have it!

I hope this article was useful, and if you have any questions you'd like to clarify about these numbers in a bit more depth, or you think there's something we should do to improve these footprint calculations, please do feel free to get in touch with me directly at [email protected].

Chris Houghton

About the author

Chris Houghton heads up the team at Beacon. He's focused on using data and technology to empower nonprofits to do more good.

Want to talk about charity CRM? Follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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