In the realm of carbon emissions reduction, Scope 3 presents a challenge. As with our food, we can control what we order and what we eat, but we can’t necessarily dictate all of what goes into getting that food onto our plate.

My guilty pleasure Sunday mornings before church is to comb through food magazines looking for the most sinfully decadent recipes. One recent publication caught my attention with an article about measuring the water footprint in a cheeseburger, along with all of the ingredients one might select for their perfect burger assembly. Remarkably, the food industry had measured their water and broken it down in exactly the same way we look at our carbon emissions from energy usage. 

I’ve seen the scopes defined and explained countless times, as if we need a reference guide to refer to, so the analogy extrapolating these categories to water usage in the food supply chain made it easily memorable and explicable for everyone. Scope 1 is the direct emissions a company controls — in this water comparison for food supply, the water your restaurant uses or you as a home cook might use to wash the food and prepare the meal. Scope 2 are emissions you cause indirectly, based on the energy you purchase and how it’s produced. Think of this like the water that goes into a sauce or condiment, or even the dish soap you use to clean up after the meal — you could, after all, choose a product that had no water mixed in. Scope 3, though — this is the area you can’t directly control, short of choosing your suppliers very carefully and how you ensure your products are treated at end of life. You have to try to control the upstream and downstream of everything in your supply chain, and that is quite hard to do. The aforementioned cheeseburger, as an analogy, takes over 1,300 gallons of water. This statistic should blow you away. That’s how much water it takes to hydrate the cow, grow its food, and process it for meat stock. A completely different cow has been similarly cared for to produce the milk that made your cheese slice. And, when you consider everything that goes into growing grains for the bun and the lettuce, tomato, onion, etc., that you slap on there, you’ll realize the vastness of that scope 3 category and how little control you really have.

I’m all for enjoying a good burger, so let’s move past this and on to my true realization that morning. The food supply chain is incredibly complex — more so than our own industry. If they can measure their sustainability impact and report on it, so can we in our realm.

A sense of urgency: Dinner’s up

California recently passed a new law, SB 253, and large businesses, including data centers, will be required to disclose both direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, using standardized methodology, and disclose them annually through a public database. Like reviewing ingredient lists and calorie counts on a menu, consumers, investors, and regulators will all be able to compare emissions across companies within the sector. Data centers now have to invest in systems and processes to measure and report emissions data, and their supply chain had better be ready to provide those details. 

Scopes 1 and 2 must be reported for the prior year beginning in 2026, and the same for Scope 3 in 2027. You can bet that this won’t be isolated to California, and once the systems are in place, data centers will be applying the same methodology across their entire portfolios.

Where do we even begin?

In a different food-related adage, I’ll ask you, how do you eat an elephant? If you’ve never heard this before, the answer is: one bite at a time. We have to look at Scope 3 the same; it’s just too big to tackle otherwise. 

Addressing Scope 3 emissions necessitates a methodical approach, understanding that every action within our carbon ecosystem has an impact on something else. To address this challenge, we need to assess our standing, establish reporting mechanisms, and engage in broader discussions, ultimately setting up a consistent methodology. Let’s start with the material that has the biggest impact, concrete, and establish a framework that we can apply throughout our supply chain, then move on to another materials.

No broad, international standard: The recipe challenge

Addressing Scope 3 emissions presents an initial challenge — the absence of a universal, international standard. It's akin to trying to follow a recipe without clear instructions, perhaps one written in a language we can't fully understand. With no universal definition, varying opinions exist on what constitutes a sustainable data center. To navigate this journey effectively, organizations should view it as a buffet of opportunities. Organizations will need to become innovative in their approaches, creating their own methods for measuring and managing emissions. 

Just as a chef carefully tracks each dish's cooking time and taste, businesses should continuously assess their environmental performance and refine their sustainability strategies. Similar to making dietary adjustments while retaining flavor, companies should diligently work on improving data center efficiency and substantiating their progress through software-driven operational enhancements. 

First movers will be heavily scrutinized, certainly, but invention will be rewarded. Even the toughest critics will be sure to appreciate the courage it will take to serve up a first pass at a solution.

Publicizing success: Sharing the path to sustainability

Transitioning from voluntary reporting requirements to a widely recognized benchmark is like revealing a closely guarded recipe that becomes renowned. Companies should proactively communicate their successes in making operations more sustainable, just as a celebrated chef displays their culinary awards and achievements. By showcasing their emissions reduction goals and environmental performance, organizations can inspire others and encourage the industry to raise its standards. 

To meet this deadline, we’re going to need to share methodology for measuring. Fortunately, we all share similar suppliers who, in providing inputs to one data center, can carry that over to the rest of their data center providers. The onus to provide data will fall to vendors, while data center operators will be responsible for establishing reporting frameworks.

Incorporating innovative approaches and measuring the mix

When addressing Scope 3 emissions, it's crucial to explore innovative technologies and approaches, much like a chef experimenting with fresh ingredients and inventive techniques. Modern techniques from software, control systems, AI, and advanced cooling methods have the potential to transform data centers. Adopting these innovations can lead to greater efficiency, reduced emissions, and enhanced sustainability. As data reporting begins, outdated means will quickly be replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Complex problems require intricate solutions, and tackling Scope 3 emissions undoubtedly presents a formidable challenge within the realm of carbon emissions reduction. However, by adopting a methodical approach and taking inspiration from each other’s successes, organizations can dissect this challenge into manageable components. They can experiment with new strategies, share their success stories, and continually refine their sustainability efforts. Similar to the way a chef's dedication and creativity result in a memorable dining experience, a company's commitment to reducing Scope 3 emissions can, and must, lead to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.