Both Google Cloud and AWS have recently released carbon usage reports for your cloud resources. Obviously, I needed to see how they compare.
Before we get too far in, I want to applaud both providers for doing this. Sustainability is important, and it’s always a good idea to make people aware of things they do that may impact the environment.
That said, there’s a clear winner and loser — which is regrettable. Sustainability should be taken seriously enough to create real competition among cloud providers; it shouldn’t be a perfunctory effort.
Cloud providers — not customers — hold primary responsibility for being green
Let’s get this out of the way first: There’s a challenge when cloud providers talk about sustainability in the context of a customer’s choices.
A tremendous amount of the cloud’s carbon footprint is the direct responsibility of the cloud provider. So when a cloud provider sparks a carbon footprint discussion with its users, it runs the risk of presenting as an oil company scolding us about our personal carbon footprints. In other words, appearing to put the onus for carbon neutrality on customers could very much come off as a you problem that a provider is desperately trying to greenwash into an us problem. It absolutely does not go over well with customers, Twitter gadflies, and basically anyone else. I don’t believe this is what either Google Cloud or AWS is doing, but it’s a risk they’re clearly aware of and taking some effort to avoid getting caught out by.
AWS has asked me a lot of questions as a customer over the years. I can’t recall any of them being around “Which vendor should we select to supply power for one of our upcoming data centers?” or “What level of carbon neutrality is acceptable when picking a hard drive vendor for our S3 fleet?” And they shouldn’t ever be my responsibility to answer as a customer of the product; those are questions for the procurement teams of a business serious about sustainability.
Given that, which cloud provider is helping a well-meaning cloud customer and global citizen like myself do my part to make the world a little greener?
Comparing Google Cloud’s and AWS’s carbon footprint tools
When I go to Google Cloud’s Carbon Footprint page, I’m greeted by a whole mess of dashboards. Due to the relatively small number of workloads I run on Google Cloud, my annual carbon footprint works out to 2 kgCO₂e.
Despite the fact that 2 kgCO₂e a year is basically nothing, it further distills what drives my usage along axes of “per month,” “per region,” “per billable project in Google Cloud,” and “per Google Cloud Service that I use.”
That last one is particularly fascinating to me, if for no other reason than — with sufficient usage and time to let it bake — I get to see a rather special angle into a significant portion of Google Cloud’s per-service margins. The downside of increased transparency is increased visibility for your competitors into your cost drivers. Google’s made it rather clear this is a trade-off it’s willing to make.
Google Cloud has also made it easy to pick a green region for when you spin up a service. The drop-down menu populates with green leaves labeled “Low CO₂” for the regions that feature the lowest carbon impact.
When I click into the AWS Console and type “carbon” into the omnisearch bar at the top, the first result is a blog post Jeff Barr wrote in March 2022. You can either follow the links in that post to find the tool or, alternately, follow the ~convenient~ path of going to the Billing Dashboard, clicking into the Cost and Usage Reports section, scrolling down, and expanding the apparently-collapsed-by-default Customer Carbon Footprint Tool to display your account’s usage.
It’s unclear to me exactly what the usage is showing. This is, after all, an AWS product that touches multiple service teams, and the UX absolutely demonstrates that.
My best guess is that it’s showing my carbon footprint has been 0.4 MtCO₂e between January 2020 and April 2022. The graph flatlines at zero, since it apparently isn’t calibrated for carbon emissions at this small of a scale.
It further ~helpfully~ points out that 100% of my carbon emissions has been driven by the service “Other.” I suppose there’s a way to make this less useful, but I don’t know what that might possibly look like.
AWS clearly biases away from transparency, to the point that this report basically looks like the climate equivalent of “someone had to check a compliance box for installing malware-scanning everywhere so they installed clamav on all of their servers, didn’t bother to configure it at all, and then checked the box.”
And if you want to spin up a service in a greener region, the documentation for the Sustainability Pillar of the AWS Well-Architected Framework suggests that you “Choose Regions near Amazon renewable energy projects and Regions where the grid has a published carbon intensity that is lower than other locations (or Regions).” Of course, AWS offers no maps or listings that would inform you which regions those might be.
Google Cloud nails the tool, AWS plays the fool
On a larger scale, Google Cloud is already at 100% carbon neutrality, apparently via offsets and a few other accounting approaches, with a goal to move to 100% renewable energy for all cloud regions by 2030.
Meanwhile, AWS’s carbon footprint tool is an embarrassment to AWS and its stated goal of reaching 100% renewable energy usage by 2025.
The bottom line: One of these carbon neutrality approaches is indicative of a thoughtful approach to partnering with customers to lead to a better climate story around cloud usage. The other appears to have been phoned in by clowns the night before it was due.
Google Cloud is for tree huggers
Ultimately, there are virtually no scenarios where you won’t have a carbon footprint improvement by moving your workloads to the cloud — ANY cloud. If you want to slice and dice the impact of your workloads on the environment and make greener choices, there’s only one cloud provider that can help you do that.
I just really want to see this being an area in which the cloud providers aggressively compete, rather than ceding the work entirely to one contender.