The Carbon Cost Of Digital Tech

Digitalisation is a major culprit of carbon creation. So what can we do about it?

We are living in the age of mass digitalisation. Today, nearly half of the global population has internet access through computers, tablets, and mobile phones. In fact, there are now more mobile phone subscriptions in the world than people.

Digital tech has opened up incredible opportunities for individuals and organisations, and changed almost every aspect of our lives. What it has also done, however, is create the same level of carbon emissions as the aviation industry.

D/SRUPTION asked Chris Adams, Director at The Green Web Foundation, why the environmental impact of digital has been overlooked, and what organisations can do to reduce their carbon consumption.

Teching responsibility

Carbon emissions are a key culprit of global warming which, as we know, threatens life on Earth. This is something that most organisations should be keen to address in whatever way they can. Unfortunately, it isn’t in the best interests of digital businesses to draw attention to the carbon consumption of the products and services they are trying to sell.

“Tech is responsible for more emissions each year than Canada or any single state in the EU,” says Adams. “As the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports say, we’ll need sweeping, radical changes to stand a chance of avoiding even more damage and suffering than we are seeing now. This includes tech, especially when the sector is so wealthy.”

In 2011, the Green Web Foundation was established to speed the transition of the internet away from fossil fuels. For companies working in the digital sector, Adams explains, this is often a significant part of their environmental impact. By redesigning their digital products and services, businesses can become less environmentally damaging.

As well as providing training and open source software, the Foundation publishes open data to broaden the understanding of digital’s carbon cost. It encourages organisations to think about their impact in terms of place, policy, and procurement. ‘Place’ is where work happens, whether that be in a physical office or on a remote device. It includes how people get to work and the resources they use. ‘Policy’ concerns target setting and tracking, and ‘procurement’ focuses on supply chains and the provenance of resources.

Reducing digital emissions

Before plummeting into an ambitious strategy of carbon reduction, organisations across sectors need to know where, how, and why carbon is created. Measuring is fairly straightforward, provided that everyone works to the same system. However, the processes and units used vary wildly between organisations. Electricity usage also changes based on location. Even if all organisations used a set unit of measurement, the carbon creation of boiling a kettle in one country isn’t the same in another. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a partnership of businesses, NGOs and governing bodies, attempts to make measurements more meaningful by standardising how emissions are categorised. There are various tools available to make measuring easier, including carbon analytics from platforms like normative.io, which carries out automatic sustainability checks.

Carbon analytics tools can help organisations to understand the extent to which their existing infrastructure and servers contribute to emissions. As such, they can start to consider different ways of doing things. For example, it’s suggested that the cloud could notably reduce energy usage in data centres. The shift away from data centres has led to us using much more computing power, without the corresponding jump in energy usage. But, as Adams points out, organisations should also think about where energy comes from.

“The cloud is more efficient, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s more environmentally friendly,” Adams points out. “A less efficient data centre running on renewables will almost always be a better choice, environmentally speaking, than an efficient one that uses coal.”

For the last 10 years, the Green Web Foundation has maintained the world’s largest database of website and digital providers using renewable power, making it easier for companies to find greener options.

Becoming a sustainable, environmentally positive business isn’t just about decarbonisation. It’s equally as important, for example, to think about where investment is going. Take Google, a company that has taken significant steps to run data centres more efficiently. Last year, the tech giant was the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, and reached its goal of sourcing 100 per cent of its energy from renewable sources in 2017. Despite this, Google is far from perfect.

“Google is funding climate deniers in the US, and supporting politicians who consistently cripple effective legislation in other sectors, as well as aggressively chasing business in the oil and gas sector,” Adams says.

Make a statement

It’s now the norm for big businesses to publish a sustainability report of some kind. This is all about accountability: setting targets and keeping to them. Unfortunately, these reports aren’t always entirely reliable. As shown by the Google example, it’s possible to excel in one area and utterly fail in another. This isn’t to say that Google hasn’t been successful, but ambitious goals should be part of a company-wide approach – otherwise, it’s easy to come across as hypocritical.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to openly commit to reduce negative impact is to release a statement that encompasses environmental and ethical standards as The Panoply have done. In this document, the group pledges to minimise its environmental impact and set annual and long term targets in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. All contractors and employees are expected to adhere to the Code, and undergo yearly checks to keep track of their progress. An overarching commitment is certainly a good place to start, and paves the way for more detailed targets further down the line.

That said, heaving responsibility onto individuals is a slippery slope for businesses, who need to avoid alienating or confusing their stakeholders.

Empowering employees

System change starts with individual change. The question is, how far can businesses rely on individual employees to act in an environmentally conscious way?

“This is a difficult question, and you can’t really answer it without fully understanding every individual’s circumstances,” says Adams. “We’re already in a system that is by default deeply unsustainable and unequal, and this constrains the choices available to people. People also tend to get extremely defensive when you question their life choices, so it’s often not a productive line of conversation.”

However, he adds, the more professional mobility somebody has, the more responsible they are for their role in the system. The Amazon Employees For Climate Justice movement, for example, demonstrates that workers can actively change their organisations. Team this internal push with growing consumer pressure, and businesses almost have no choice but to make tangible progress.

Individuals can also think about how money is invested on their behalf through pension schemes. Half of the money invested in the whole of the UK comes from pensions. Platforms like ShareAction want to use the collective weight of pensions to build a more sustainable world.

Crisis point

“It’s pretty easy to decarbonise tech compared to other sectors,” says Adams. “We’re just not doing it fast enough right now.”

With global temperatures on the rise, it’s time for organisations to consider their role in reducing carbon creation, and perhaps go one step further by becoming carbon neutral or carbon negative. This is as much about improving the business itself as preventing further damage to the planet.

“There’s no excuse for not having a plan for decarbonising the emissions from digital within most organisations, as it’ll usually result in lower costs, better use of infrastructure, and better working practices that make it easier to attract and retain talent.”

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