Your carbon offsets are burning

Today: why cloud companies may need to rethink their reliance on certain kinds of carbon offset projects, why words matter when it comes to software licensing, and the quote of the week.

Your carbon offsets are burning
Photo by Malachi Brooks / Unsplash

Welcome to Runtime! Today: why cloud companies may need to rethink their reliance on certain kinds of carbon offset projects, why words matter when it comes to software licensing, and the quote of the week.

(Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here to get Runtime each week.)

Up in smoke

It's wildfire season once again in Oregon, which has become an annual summer rite and a bitter pill to swallow for a region that gets so much rain every other season. Oregon's massive forests are also attractive to private companies like Green Diamond, which sells carbon offset projects to tech companies looking to make their energy consumption stats look a little greener.

OPB published a report this week about the 2021 Bootleg Fire, which burned over 400,000 acres in Southern Oregon and damaged one of the largest carbon offset projects in the state owned by Green Diamond. The devastating 2020 Labor Day fires also damaged or destroyed several carbon offset projects in other parts of Oregon, raising a lot of questions about whether or not one of cloud computing's favorite sustainability PR tactics can actually work in the long term as climate change continues to alter long-understood weather patterns.

  • Carbon offset projects allow businesses and organizations to purchase credits that supposedly make up for their real-world carbon emissions by supporting worthwhile environmental projects, like planting and protecting trees that absorb carbon dioxide.
  • Green Diamond, based in Seattle, is an old-school logging company that also sells these credits as an emerging part of its business model.
  • These credits are very popular among all the major hyperscalers, who operate enormous data centers that require a lot of energy to run and also offer their own customers credits for their consumption.

But the Bootleg fire will likely force Green Diamond to terminate one of the two carbon offset projects it maintains at the site, according to OPB, and Microsoft was a significant investor in that project.

  • "In 2021, we sold a quarter million tons of these carbon removal credits to Microsoft, representing a significant portion of the company’s fiscal year 2021 carbon removal portfolio," Green Diamond said in describing the origins of the Southern Oregon project.
  • That was the single-largest carbon-removal project Microsoft committed to during its 2021 fiscal year, according to company data.
  • The project was also supposed to remove carbon from the atmosphere for up to 100 years, which obviously isn't going to happen now.
  • Microsoft has invested in several other forestry projects since, including credits for more than 800,000 tons with Green Diamond in Southern Oregon in just 2023, but the long-term future of that site appears hazy.
  • And it's not just projects on the West Coast that are under threat: The massive wildfires in Canada this summer damaged a major carbon offset project in Eastern Canada.

Offset buyers and sellers have ways to account for damaged forestry projects, but as the hottest summer ever recorded stretches on, years worth of carbon removal projects could be in jeopardy.

  • That could force cloud companies to look for other methods to offset their carbon emissions until they achieve true carbon neutrality.
  • Microsoft and Google have promised to reach that goal by 2030, which is no longer that far away. (Amazon is shooting for 2040.)
  • But a rethinking of the system for awarding carbon offsets to data-center giants through forestry management might be overdue.
  • “Our assessment is that many forest carbon offset projects in the U.S. have probably delivered relatively little carbon storage and climate benefit,” said Jim Hourdequin, CEO of Lynn Timber, in an October 2022 talk to the Yale Forest Forum, as quoted by OPB.

Free as in angst

It's one of the most reliable story lines in enterprise tech: Every six months or so, there will be drama surrounding some facet of open-source software.

Meta's pseudo-open release of Llama 2 earlier this month prompted a lot of hand-wringing over what it really means to be an open-source license, leading some to conclude that it might be time for the open-source purists to throw in the towel. Stephen O'Grady of Redmonk usually brings the voice of reason to these debates, and did so again this week by explaining why words actually do matter.

"When vendors willfully and knowingly apply the open source term to code that is open but carries some restrictions that the currently accepted definition of open source would not permit, what they’re implicitly asking for is the marketing bump from open source with the exclusivity of a proprietary software model," he wrote.

Open-source software is so widely used and so associated with good vibes that it's not hard to understand why companies want to appropriate the term to describe their own work. But those good vibes stem from the fact that code from open-source projects can be used freely and easily without a lot of conditions and without having to hire a lawyer.

If less-than-open-but-still-called-open licensing tactics continue to increase, it will get harder to understand the incentives for using and participating in "open" source projects designed solely to make money for somebody else.

Quote of the week

“I believe this can happen. But that does not mean this has happened.” — Sankar Das Sarma, director of the Condensed Matter Theory Center at the University of Maryland, as quoted by the New York Times on the hottest thing since Planet of the Bass — the possibility that LK-99 is a room-temperature superconductor.

The Runtime roundup

Microsoft published the patch for the Azure vulnerability that prompted Tenable's CEO to blast the company for its previous plan to delay that fix until late September.

Techcrunch published a great profile of Window Snyder, who has improved the security of products we all use every day without getting a lot of credit to this point.

Thanks for reading — see you Tuesday!

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Runtime.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.