Industry is caught between two opposing pressures of digital transformation and decarbonisation as increasing volumes of data and new technology create ever-greater carbon footprints. Sustainable IT is the manufacture, use, management, and disposal of information technology to minimise its impact on the environment. Companies must now include IT sustainability and digital decarbonisation as part of their overall net zero targets, actions, and reporting. It is a significant challenge that will require new approaches, new skills and new use of the technology that, in its various forms, is creating the problem.
Manufacturers are bound by established regulations and have the resources needed to comply. Still, new rules present end-users with challenges as digital footprints have rarely been considered or addressed. IT and the data it produces are forecast to generate more carbon emissions than the automotive, aviation and energy sectors combined, highlighting digital footprints’ significant and hidden impact.
Claire Benson, director of SDG Changemakers, believes that companies need to put digital sustainability on the platform of action and gain a clear view of how they’re going to create targets and develop a plan. “Companies need to be smarter with their IT and the data it produces,” she says. “There is a need for a gap analysis to really understand IT footprints because if people don’t understand sustainability properly it’s going to be very difficult to initiate the change that’s needed.”
Digital carbon footprint
Around 80 per cent of IT’s carbon footprint comes from the manufacturing and distribution of the equipment itself. The rest comes from operational usage, and for some end-users IT can account for 20 per cent of their total emissions. Forrester Research says IT may account for about ten per cent of a company’s energy consumption and ten per cent of its CO2 emissions.
Analysis by the MIT Centre for Information Systems Research suggests that financial services and telecommunications sector IT operations generate more CO2 per $1m in revenue than other industries. Gartner estimates that power consumption by computers accounts for two per cent of total global CO2 emissions, roughly equal to CO2 emissions of the airline industry.
Carbon calculator apps and real-time energy consumption emission dashboards can measure some footprint impact but measurement is not enough, dedicated action is required address the problem of IT environmental impact.
IT sustainability solutions
Sustainable IT strategies include purchasing energy-efficient desktops, notebooks, servers, routers and other core IT hardware, as well as managing the power consumption of such equipment. It also includes eco-safe end-of-life disposal of equipment through recycling or refurbishment. For example, the EU and some US states require recycling e-waste, while many manufacturers have take-back schemes for disposal.
Every year over 272 million new laptops are manufactured and every day 160,000 unwanted laptops are disposed of in the EU alone, 70 per cent of which could be reused to reduce raw materials, energy consumption and waste.
“Around twenty per cent of hardware used by Google and AWS is based on refurbished equipment,” says Richard Clifford at Keysource. “When it comes to IT sustainability we should start with being smarter in the way we build and power digital assets, accelerate the circular economy, increase recycling and refurbishment of devices and hardware.”
IT infrastructure is key to sustainability
A report by Pure Storage and Wakefield Research highlighted IT infrastructure sustainability as the number one priority among sustainability program directors, with 90 per cent agreeing that companies can only reach their net zero goals by reducing their technology infrastructure energy usage. The problem will increase as 76 per cent predict the impact of technology infrastructure on a company’s carbon footprint will rise in the next 12 months, but only half of those surveyed in the UK say they are on track with their goals.
The growth of IT infrastructure footprint is driven by management decisions and business needs that create vast volumes of data. The world generates almost 100 trillion gigabytes of data annually. Sixty-five per cent of it is wasted ‘dark data’ unused or hidden that has a greater carbon footprint than the aviation industry and contributes to the four per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions attributed to digitalisation. Furthermore, data volumes are forecast to almost double, with DataReportal predicting the amount of data created over the next three years will be more than the total created over the past 30 years.
Reducing the amount of data produced, along with the resources and energy needed to produce and store it, will go a long way to reducing IT footprints Marcin Bala, CEO of Salumanus, says. “If you can reduce power consumption you can reduce the amount of heat output and cooling required. As well as reducing power consumption per device, IT teams should look at ways of reducing the total number of devices on the network altogether.”
Developments in new low-power chips can deliver IT sustainability by reducing heat and energy use by data centres, workplace servers and personal devices. Switching to renewable energy will not solve the power and heat problem by itself but allied to a reduction in overall consumption it will significantly reduce a company’s total emissions.
As data volumes increase so does the amount of hardware needed. But many servers are still air cooled with racks deliberately under-utilised to prevent them from overheating, leading to unsustainable expansion. Alongside new cooling systems, a move from 3-Tier architecture to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) could potentially reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint by around 27 per cent per year.
IT teams can improve sustainability by maximising space to minimise hardware cooling and energy costs, collocating servers or relocating servers to colder climates that could deliver an eight per cent reduction in GHG emissions.
Cloud computing offers sustainable solution
“When pursuing net-zero targets, moving IT systems to cloud-based solutions is something any company can do and is a great first step,” says Richard Farrell, CIO at Netcall. “Cloud-based services are hosted at large data centres which use energy efficient hardware and generally have carbon reduction measures in place. Cloud providers also use high, and increasing, proportions of emission-free energy.”
AWS estimates it can reduce carbon emissions by up to 88 per cent compared to on-premise systems. IDC estimated that cloud computing could eliminate a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions by the end of 2024.
Data centres, responsible for a major share of the world’s digital footprint, have taken big steps to sustainability in the past decade with the amount of energy used by operators globally remaining at around one per cent (cryptocurrency adds a further 0.5 per cent) according to the International Energy Agency. This, despite internet traffic and data centre workloads increasing, is partly due to advancements in efficiency and virtualisation, transforming physical IT infrastructure into software. Google is developing technology to maximise energy efficiency and reduce waste and has developed an AI system to predict failures in IT cooling systems which account for significant energy use.
The Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact embraced by around 90 per cent of the European data centre industry sets out formal sustainability targets to achieve climate neutrality by 2025 and 2030. Companies using data centre services should be able to include operators’ reporting data as part of their own Scope 3 reporting.
New standards for digital sustainability
IT creates a significant footprint but can also help to address the problem. Tech and the data it produces can measure and increase productivity to deliver efficiency, reduce use of chemicals and resources, analyse and track progress and reduce product waste all of which can minimise environmental impact. While many products are available to capture and report such operational impact, digital footprints have been a low priority or ignored.
Planned new standards and regulation will spur action on IT sustainability, says Wes van den Berg, vp and general manager UK&I at Pure Storage. “IT sustainability will be taken beyond general business initiatives into new clearly-defined targets. We’ll see the C-suite being given monetary targets so that goals such as digital decarbonisation are set to a specific amount rather than a vague promise to reduce emissions. According to the CBI, two thirds of investors consider sustainability when assessing a company so it must become a priority. If you don’t have a strong tangible sustainability programme that includes IT along with other assets and processes, then your brand and business will suffer.”