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Platform.sh sustainability lead Leah Goldfarb on looking for “impact at scale” in cloud decarbonisation

The trained climate scientist talks cutting cloud emissions and avoiding data centre graveyards in this CSO Futures interview.
Melodie Michel
Platform.sh sustainability lead Leah Goldfarb
Platform.sh sustainability lead Leah Goldfarb

After 20 years working as a climate scientist including at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Leah Goldfarb believes she can have a greater impact leading sustainability at cloud-based platform-as-a-service platform.sh.

“I wanted to have an impact at scale, and I thought the cloud would be the place to do it: in terms of technology it is scaling up so rapidly that if you find a way to decarbonize, not only could it have a big impact but you could really see the numbers change,” she tells CSO Futures.

The Paris-based firm was launched in 2015 and now counts Nestlé, Adobe, Unicef and several e-commerce platforms as clients. It raised US$140 million in a Series D last year to fund team expansion and accelerate product development – which is when Goldfarb joined as Environmental Impact Officer.

She is convinced that it is cloud providers’ responsibility to ensure the sector’s growth doesn’t result in the predicted exponential increase in CO2 emissions. At platform.sh, she is leading the ‘greener hosting’ initiative, which is based on four pillars: measure, optimise, deploy, and educate.

For measurement, the company is working with startup Greenly, which uses the carbon calculation methodology developed by French ecological transition agency ADEME, based on spend and physical activities. 

“We consider this one to be the best model out there. What they do is really interesting: to simulate the amount of electricity that's used in the cloud, they use cloud bills for compute, storage, network and what they call ‘other’. So once you have the electricity [usage], then you can calculate how much carbon is emitted by the carbon intensity of the underlying electricity grid,” Goldfarb explains.

High-density computing for emissions reduction

Through this methodology in 2022, platform.sh reported 3,728 tonnes of CO2 emissions, two-thirds of which came from client projects running in the cloud. 

To reduce this, she says there are “a couple of different levers” the company can use. One is around the optimisation of workflows: “Most instances in the cloud are under-utilised. And what we can do as a platform-as-a-service is create this high-density computing, so making sure the CPU is running as close to 100% as possible to be as efficient as possible, and to pack as many work packages as we can onto a single instance.” 

Another important aspect of cloud emissions reduction is sending computing applications to data centres in countries with a less polluting power grid. Goldfarb excitedly shares an Electricity Map showing the carbon intensity of national grids on an almost real-time (hourly) basis – a tool she regularly uses to educate clients.

“We try to make people aware of the underlying electricity grid and to locate their work packages, either in Quebec running on hydro or out here, Pacific Northwest or in Sweden,” she says, adding that this type of shift can reduce emissions “by a factor of 10”. 

Avoiding “data centre graveyards”

One of the recent examples shared by the company at this year’s DrupalCon is the migration of some of Nestlé’s applications from data centres in Ireland to Sweden, which Goldfarb expects to result in an 80% reduction in cloud-related greenhouse gas emissions. 

“What we tried to show people is that for the same work package, it's not the same CO2, even if the hyperscalers communicate a lot around market-based approaches and power purchase agreements. So it's just making our clients more aware of what's really happening now,” she explains

Asked by CSO Futures about the physical and compliance limits of such geolocation strategies, she recalls her time at the IPCC, where people would say that “every fraction of a degree matters”.

She adds: “I'm pretty conscious that we don't want to create data centre graveyards, say in Germany because of the embodied admissions there. But I think as more and more people do become aware of this strategy and start migrating to Sweden, Germany is going to wake up and say, ‘okay, we got to clean up our grid, this lignite coal has to go, if we want to keep our economy humming, or we're going to lose people’.”

Regulation as a bridge between science and corporate sustainability

Having spent most of her career as a climate scientist, Goldfarb notes that she had to “change her language” when she entered the corporate sector. And although the science world was not where she wanted to be in the end, she is thrilled to see its contributions trickling down to companies – via new regulations and standards.

“We have some new regulations coming into force in Europe, and so I find that fascinating to think about. To me, that is the fruition of the scientific impact on businesses,” she says, adding that the Science-Based Initiative, CDP and California’s climate disclosure bills all fall into this remit. “This auditing, using standardised methods, to me brings together the real scientific and the corporate.”

Speaking of regulation, platform.sh will be expected to comply with CSRD from 2025 (with first reporting due in early 2026). Goldfarb, who is part of a two-person team managing these disclosure requirements (although she hopes to recruit someone else next year), is very conscious of the workload ahead. To prepare, the company will have a “dry run” in 2024. “They're talking about 1,000 data points, and all the rest, like this is big data. We need to be aware now of what the questions are, what we need to measure, what we need to follow, and optimise,” she says.

While she admits that complying with these regulations is more difficult for smaller companies like platform.sh than for multinational corporations with much larger sustainability teams, she also thinks it will all be worth it in the long run.

“I think Europeans will be in a better position going forward, because we have these standardised ways of comparing our businesses. We're showing that we’re meeting our targets, we're getting graded question by question, and it’s very clear.”