In this exclusive interview, we catch up with Alissa Starzak, Vice President, Deputy Chief Legal Officer and Global Head of Public Policy at Cloudflare, to reveal the secret source of emissions that companies can address right now.
In today’s sustainability-driven landscape, business leaders are constantly reminded of a clear and crucial mandate: decarbonisation is now non-negotiable. From classifying emissions into Scopes 1, 2, and the dreaded Scope 3, businesses are embracing any opportunities available to achieve their net zero goals.
For some businesses, solutions can lie in electrifying vehicle fleets, installing renewable energy generators, and partnering with suppliers who demonstrate a positive environmental impact.
But, beyond these sometimes costly changes, there lies another avenue for businesses to dramatically reduce their operational emissions: optimising their digital footprint.
But what is a digital footprint?
By reading this article, you are partially responsible for producing emissions. Your device’s power consumption originates from a source; potentially a gas power station. That source will have its own emissions. Similarly, the server hosting this article consumes energy, generating its own carbon footprint. The entire network infrastructure in between, including routers and switches, further adds to emissions through energy use.
To quantify this impact, consider this: global Internet usage accounts for 3.7% of global CO2 emissions, about equal to the CO2 emissions of all air traffic around the world.
This same principle extends to internal business networks. Every device, server, and network switch contributes to a businesses emissions through the energy they purchase (Scope 2), so logically, it also presents an opportunity to impact-driven businesses.
“Being able to put sustainability into something that matters, but also is a benefit to you from a cost-saving standpoint, becomes a no-brainer,” says Alissa Starzak, Vice President, Deputy Chief Legal Officer and Global Head of Public Policy at Cloudflare.
Starzak has been a part of Cloudflare since 2017, joining the company from roles within the US Department of Defence. Drawn to Cloudflare’s mission-driven approach, she played a key role in establishing an Impact program that encompasses the company’s sustainability efforts, providing free services to non-profits, journalists, election entities, and supporting human rights initiatives.
During her time at Cloudflare, the company has gone from strength to strength. “We’ve grown a lot as a company,” says Starzak. “We’re about eight times as big as when I started.”
With its growth, so too has Cloudflare’s mission, encompassing a broader range of services. In its latest annual founders’ letter, co-founders, Matthew Prince and Michelle Zatlyn, described the company’s identity as a “connectivity cloud.”
“Our job isn’t to be the final destination for your data, but to help it move and flow,” Prince and Zatlyn wrote. “Any application, any data, anyone, anywhere, anytime — that’s the essence of connectivity, and that’s always been the promise of the Internet.”
Initially focused on offering customers cost-efficiency, the company’s pursuit of highly efficient networks inadvertently led them to discover their potential for environmental impact. As Starzak explains it, “one of the things we pushed for early in our development was very efficient networks, for cost-saving purposes. Not for environmental purposes, necessarily.”
“We realised along the way that what we had built was something that was actually incredible for a whole other set of purposes that we really didn’t have in mind at the time. We started thinking about how people could use our network to be more efficient themselves.”
Intrigued by this realisation, Cloudflare partnered with TMT (technology, media, and telecom) consulting firm Analysys Mason to quantify the environmental benefits of using a cloud-based network, on-site IT hardware with that of Cloudflare’s global network.
The results of the research were…surprising.
“It was shocking to us,” says Starzak. “For a large enterprise, just the replacement of that on-premise equipment, with a cloud-based solution, you could end up with a 78% reduction in actual emission’s calculation,” she explains.
“For small [businesses] it could be even larger, it could be a 96%.”
According to Starzak, this saving primarily stems from the efficiencies of cloud-based architecture. Unlike traditional on-site equipment that often sits idle, underutilised and wastes energy, cloud-based networks use shared infrastructure to harness the power of economies of scale.
By consolidating resources and sharing them among multiple users, Cloudflare can maximise equipment usage, reducing overall energy consumption and all the associated emissions.
“You’re talking about less equipment and less power draw because you have ended up having a more efficient use of a set of resources,” says Starzak.
Cloudflare also seems primed for this type of benefit due to its design, as Starzak tells us. “When you think about what a massive global network looks like, you think about large data centres that draw lots of power, that’s not how our network is set up. We are all in shared data centres or co-located with ISPs (internet service providers).”
“We just have a more efficient way of putting our equipment in the world.”
The source of energy is another key environmental factor of cloud-based networking, and in this area, Cloudflare seems to have stumbled upon an advantage by chance. “This is the accidental component,” Starzak admits. “We found when we looked that we were often centred in places that actually had good renewable sources of energy.”
“We did pretty well in that area. We actually tend to be more located, in general, in areas with cleaner power sources,” Starzak concludes.
By ditching the physical network model with a cloud-based one, companies can also have greater control over how and when they’re used. One neat example presented by Starzak was the ability to delegate non-time-critical tasks to remote data centres powered by cleaner energy grids.
“That, to me, is a really interesting aspect of having a global network,” Starzak says. “You can do some of those things that you couldn’t do if you were only in one location.”
While the shift to a cloud-based network may raise concerns about cost implications, Starzak reassures us that cloud adoption can actually lead to both cost savings and environmental benefits.
“Often what a CIO (chief information officer) hears is that if you’re telling me to value sustainability, you’re telling me I need to do things that are more expensive. We would like to be able to come up with ways where that is not true, where you’re both saving money and being more sustainable, and that is that the two can coexist.”
“We have to go in that direction if we really want to reduce global emissions, we have to come up with ways to do that well, where it doesn’t always come at an extra cost.”
So when it comes to your carbon footprint, sharing may indeed mean caring.
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