Towards carbon negativity

Humans have been pumping greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere at an unsustainable rate. It’s on us to reverse course as quickly as possible to stay below the tipping point of 1.5℃ global warming. Without action, the future is beyond bleak.

At Basecamp, we’re committing to becoming carbon negative for our cumulative history and moving forward.

The first step of that commitment is understanding the size of our carbon footprint. We’ve just completed our first carbon footprinting exercise as a company and are publishing our results. By sharing our approach, we hope to make it easier for other companies to also join the collective mission to carbon negativity. 

In 2019, Basecamp’s estimated carbon footprint was ~820 tCO2e. Here’s how that breaks down:

🏘  Remote offices: ~5 tCO2e
Basecamp is a remote company which means even in the pre-COVID era, we mostly work from home. The power drawn to run our work computers and monitors are attributable to Basecamp. We roughly estimated power drawn for 50 Basecampers whose homes are not powered by renewable energy, a laptop + monitor/person for 40 hours/week/Basecamper, 47 work weeks/year, and a CO2e/kWH emissions factor from the US electricity supply average.

🛌  Event lodging and meals: ~20 tCO2e
As a company, we typically hold two in-person gatherings a year. We also occasionally travel to attend conferences for professional development or train new team members. The majority of the non-transportation emissions from these gatherings are tied to hotel stays, using emission factors from the Cornell Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index.

💻  Hardware manufacturing + end-of-life: ~25 tCO2e
There are emissions associated with the production and disposal of each laptop, monitor, on-prem server, etc. we use as a company. Those emissions can be prorated by the hardware’s expected lifespan for each year. Several manufacturers helpfully publish their own carbon footprint estimates for their devices so we used those specs to calculate the emissions associated with 56 laptops and monitors and 55 on-prem databases.

✈️  Transportation: ~75 tCO2e
Basecampers flew nearly 400k miles (644k km) and traveled roughly 35k miles (56k km) over ground combined in 2019 for meetups, conferences, and trainings. Those travels translate into roughly 63 tCO2e for flights and 12 tCO2e for ground transport based on EPA emissions data.

🗄 On-prem hosting: ~80 tCO2e
We run several of our applications in on-prem data centers. It takes energy to host the apps, to the tune of roughly 330,000 kWH in 2019. One of our on-prem data centers is powered via an emission-free energy supply contract. After excluding the power from that data center, we translated the power consumption from our remaining on-prem data servers using emissions factors from the US Energy Information Administration and global warming potentials from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

🏢  Company office: ~120 tCO2e
For the last ten years, Basecamp has had a headquarters office in Chicago. It’s a beautiful space that was the gathering grounds for our company meetups. Turns out, that office is also heated by electricity and we used a whopping 261,130 kWH in 2019. In Illinois, 60% of power is generated from fossil fuels so that consumption translates into more emissions than all of our company transportation in 2019. This realization was one of the most shocking findings from our carbon footprint. We’re saying goodbye to the office in July

📚  Printed books: ~135 tCO2e
Basecamp’s founders have written several books including REMOTEREWORK, and It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. Approximately 45k copies sold in 2019 combined. Using a benchmark of 3 kg CO2e/book puts the footprint of these books in the same ballpark as the company office emissions.

☁️ Cloud hosting (including data transfers and storage): ~285 tCO2e
We also use Amazon Web Services to run our apps, with a few supporting infrastructure on Google Cloud Platform. Cloud data centers use a lot of electricity, though there are efficiencies gained by scale. However, not all cloud services are equal from a climate change perspective. Since 2017, GCP has added enough additional renewable energysources to the grids its data centers are on to be considered carbon neutral. AWS can’t say the same thing

It’s tough to estimate the carbon footprint of AWS service usage as they do not share power consumption as a metric. So to estimate, we broke down data we do have — server hours used, GB data transferred, and GB stored — and converted to energy consumed and carbon emissions from there. We assumed a 30% discount in power usage for AWS’ servers, based on their own commissioned report on how much savings typically comes from facility efficiency and renewable energy usage. We then used an extrapolated research estimate of kWh/GB used to transfer data over the Internet. Overall, this method led to an estimated 580,000 kWH for cloud compute, 633,000 kWH for data transfer, and 140,000 kWH for data storage in regions that aren’t fully carbon offset in 2019.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate, in both directions:

  • On one hand, AWS could merit a higher discount on emissions. Their current stated goal is to get to 100% energy offset by 2030 and a significant portion of the renewable energy projects they have invested in appear to be going into the grids that power our apps. We just don’t know for sure and so erred on the environmentally conservative side.
  • On the other hand, the extrapolated energy intensity we used for data transfer emissions could have been too generous. If there are any informed experts on the carbon footprint of data transfer out there, we’d love to learn from your work.

🐛 Wiggle room: 75 tCO2e
Since this is our first time doing a carbon footprinting, we assume we’ve missed something decently substantial. For instance, we have not gone through to footprint the upstream indirect emissions from other software vendors, many of which are also hosted on AWS. In an attempt to account for these unknowns, this wiggle room category is an additional 10% of associated emissions.

So in total, this puts us at ~820 tCO2e for 2019. We’ve also projected a footprint of ~770 tCO2e for 2020 and estimated a very rough historical cumulative carbon footprint of 6,000 tCO2e for 1999-2018.

But there’s one more unaccounted for unknown worth mentioning:

💰  Banking: ??? tCO2e
Money makes the world run and we’re cognizant that our banking partner could easily be the largest source of indirect emissions. In the course of our research, we found a 2008 report from the Rainforest Action Network that was very eye-opening on the potential footprint. We’re looking for more recent research or data that could help us factor in the indirect emissions from our deposit accounts.

In the next few weeks, Basecamp will purchase enough certified carbon credits to offset our estimated cumulative carbon footprint and make us carbon neutral. To get to carbon negative, we further invest at least a further $100,000 each year starting this year (2020) to sponsor new carbon offsetting projects. 

We will also place even more emphasis internally on the reduction of our own emissions: through our choice of vendors, our company events, and our software design. The environmental benefit of not emitting is more certain and immediate than the eventual carbon sequestration from reforestation projects and emerging technologies. We can emit less and we’re going to do the work to do so.

27 thoughts on “Towards carbon negativity

  1. Have you considered the trees that needed to be cut to print all your books? This is not directly related to carbon, but it hurts the environment nevertheless, and should be compensated for. Same for other kinds of paper used at the company, if any.

    1. Yes, the benchmark carbon footprint for the books included “fiber sourcing”, aka fresh trees and recycled paper. The book printing is the main source of paper at Basecamp: as a remote company, we simply don’t use that much physical paper for day-to-day work. In terms of compensation, we are looking at reforestation projects as a primary means of carbon offsetting currently.

    2. You silly, most (80%) of the trees are not grown for paper. Instead, they are grown for furniture and constructions. And to make room for… corn and soy beans used for vegetable oil production to enhance the gasoline and diesel.
      Trees grown for paper have a short lifespan, they are grown in an intensive way, the fibers are less dense and are not suitable for constructions and furniture.

      On the same note, if you are such a climate conscious, how often are you replacing your iphones and macs? :)) :))
      How many trees have you planted in your life?

  2. I’m curious which carbon credits you plan to purchase. Will you be sharing that?

    Have you considered investing in reforestation projects, natural farming, and other methods of direct carbon sequestration?

    1. Great question. I’d also be interested in this, as carbon offsets tend to be a bit of a… questionable business…

      I ended up buying personal carbon offsets through, as they were Gold Standard certified and publicly release all of their financial information, but I would definitely like to know what you all end up settling on, too.

    2. Yes, we’ll be sharing a follow-up post after we’ve finalized the projects we’ll be sponsoring and where we’re buying the carbon credits from. Vetting is super important and that’s what we’re doing right now.

  3. Great initiative.

    Some remarks :

    – should you take into account the use of your products by your customers ? I don’t know what is the norm (if any) on this.

    – since anthropogenic emissions far exceed the amount of “offsets” available worldwide, purchasing carbon credits cannot be considered a viable solution on a large scale. So the reduction of your (our) emissions is definitely the way to go.

    – 820 tCO2e / 50 basecampers = 16.4 tCO2 per employee seems like a pretty high carbon footprint per employee (Well, I’m not an expert, and haven’t looked for comparative data). That’s interesting as we could naively think that a business like basecamp would be a low carbon intensive business.

    Thanks for sharing the data

    1. Thanks, Thomas!

      On customer usage: part of our cloud hosting calculation is the data transfer in and out from/to customers as they use our products, which has associated emissions. We are not, however, accounting for indirect emissions that our customers may be responsible for because of what they make or product while using Basecamp. I don’t believe that the typical boundaries for indirect emission accounting would include the latter.

      On footprint per employee: it is a high footprint per employee, though that’s also because we have relatively few employees running so many products. A couple of other software companies’ have published footprint accounting such as AutoCAD, Adobe, and Shopify in case you’re interested in comparing approaches.

  4. Carbon offsets don’t work. Take, for example, offsetting flights. Trees that sequester carbon don’t make the carbon disappear – they simply store it. When those trees die (as all trees do) the carbon from those flights is released into the atmosphere.

    The only way to prevent carbon entering the atmosphere via travel is not to travel. Doable, in a remote company.

  5. Great initiative! I’d love to hear more about any goals around reduction in addition to what you’ve spoken about regarding offsetting – as you probably found in your research, offsetting can be a minefield of challenges regarding trust, additionality, tracking, etc.

    Given that, reduction is always going to be the most reliable way to take climate action at a corporate level 🙂

  6. Obviously cloud hosting is a huge part of your business and therefore a huge part of the environmental impact of your business.

    GCP has a much better environment record than AWS. I’d love to know more about David’s remarks on Twitter that GCP nearly burnt Basecamp to the ground, twice. I have no affiliation, just interested.

  7. I would like to leave you with the suggestion of rather than buying carbon credits, you could potentially buy land to expand existing protected or similarly managed natural reserves. Harder to account for, but you could probably do it in a similar way as for the carbon credits, and it may be a bit more permanent solution? (with added biodiversity benefits) This is something I have been thinking about for some time, and would actually be happy to chat through the pros and cons with anyone that might be interested!

    1. Thanks for the thought, Luisa. We’re considering some options that are similar to what you’re describing.

    1. Hi Nate – at the company level, we took into account a rough estimate of the meat and dairy we consume. Diet is definitely a huge factor for individuals but for us as a company, the bigger fish to fry is reducing emissions related to running our products.

  8. Plants grow up everywhere, very quick and on zero human effort.

    That said, do you realize that when you help spread this fallacy of global warming you are actually condemning developing countries into a perpetual state of under development?

    Your nation grew and became rich doing one thing: consuming natural resources and polluting as a result of that, for centuries.

    Now, developed nations don’t want any competition by prohibiting, through political correctness, developing nations to develop themselves.

    What do you prefer? Condemn developing nations families into poverty or a pristine natural view to appreciate when you travel using the money generated by your heavily polluting activities?

    1. That’s a false choice to think the only options are wealth and destroying the environment or poverty and protecting the environment. Just to give one example, many developing countries are in parts of the world that receive a lot of sunlight. They can easily and cheaply generate most of their power from the sun. It’s win-win: more people get access to electricity and there are no carbon emissions.

  9. Thank you for making such a strong commitment to dealing with our climate crisis! Carbon offsets certainly aren’t the complete solution — but this will make a difference.

  10. I would add home heating/cooling into the home office calculations. If people are going to an office then you won’t be heating/cooling the house as much in winter/summer. If you’re at home then you need the house at the right temperature 24/7. I found that when I worked from home our electricity bill was 1.5-2x normal in winter than when not WFH. Obviously this will vary greatly based on employee location but heating was a far greater expense than running a computer and monitor.

  11. I would like to suggest that this money in carbon credits be destinated to help families in the developing world to survive the gigantic economic gap that you are helping to increase.

    If you want to save the world, start saving the people that lives in it. We dont want to migrate your country, we want equal opportunities to produce and use plenty of energy to develop ourselves.

    The nature will be here far over the humanity end.

  12. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. As others have already raised, offsets are not really a scalable solution if we are talking about decarbonising the whole of society, but I’m glad to see you’re thinking about it and considering ways to reduce emissions too.

    Have you considered embodied emissions in your cloud hosting calculation? I.e. the emissions that it took to manufacture the hardware that is used to provide the service? I don’t even know where you’d begin with that but it seems like a relevant detail to me.

    Also, where providers (e.g. GCP) are claiming to provide green electricity, I suspect this doesn’t include the embodied emissions of the generation infrastructure. Once you’ve made a solar panel there are no emissions, but it takes quite a bit of carbon to manufacture the panel in the first place, and it won’t last forever.

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