The climate cost of IT

The global environmental challenge is more stark and more immediate than ever. It’s a priority for every organization and business globally, and although green initiatives have been part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program for many years, they are now moving to the forefront of corporate agendas. With concern for the environment rapidly mounting, businesses are setting clear environmental mandates, typically based on reducing their carbon footprint. While these goals appease social pressure and customer demand, they are also for the benefit of the business, ensuring its infrastructure is sustainable and efficient long into the future. To track these pledges, employees measure and manage these targets like a budget or business plan - but for sustainability. To meet them, it is imperative that teams do not forget about the impact of IT. 

When discussing the climate, it can be easy to focus on other topics such as coal production, recycling, or plastic usage, however, Information Technology is one of the biggest carbon polluters, with digital technologies and IT accounting for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. And while this is forecast to continue increasing, contrastingly, the global DGP’s energy intensity evolution is declining by 1.8% per year. So even if hyperscalers, such as Google, use other green initiatives, like bioenergy, as long as IT is not green, the impact on our earth will be huge. Therefore, companies must consider how their IT systems can be made greener to meet sustainable targets.

Green IT vs IT for Green

To create an effective green strategy for your business, you must incorporate 'Green IT’ and ‘IT for Green’. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about the social and societal impact of climate change. So, we recommend approaching each IT strategy with a flexible view on what sustainability means for the company, the environment, and how it can be achieved.

This strategy can then be broken down into two pillars: ‘Green IT’ and ‘IT for Green’.

  • First, there is 'Green IT'. This tackles the question: how can I make information technology in the world greener? 
  • The second pillar is 'IT for Green'. This pillar looks at how companies can reduce their carbon footprint through information technology. For example, you can use AI in businesses to monitor energy efficiency. To put the potential of IT for Green into context, recent research from Microsoft and PWC UK estimated that AI could reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 4% in 2030. 

What is Green IT?

Many companies continue using the same IT system for years – or decades -, and while these systems may still work effectively for the businesses' needs, continuing to use older IT means companies are unable to access newer facilities which are often considerably more sustainable. 

Therefore, when addressing sustainable targets, companies need to examine the IT system they are currently using. Making the switch to a newer software could make the difference between meeting your sustainable goals - or not. And while the update will improve your carbon footprint, it’s also - almost - guaranteed to improve the efficiency and infrastructure of your company. 

Take on-premise solutions as an example.

In 2018, Microsoft released a report estimating that its Cloud was almost 98% more carbon-efficient than its on-premises solutions. Further supporting this statistic, last year Google highlighted research that found despite the amount of computing done in cloud data centers increasing by approximately 550% between 2010 and 2018, the actual energy consumed only grew by 6%. While many companies still solely use on-premises solutions, migrating to the Cloud could significantly benefit not only corporate carbon footprint goals but contribute to global targets too. And at the same time as benefitting from the positive environmental impact, businesses can enjoy the other benefits of the Cloud, such as cost efficiency, scalability, and security.

Likewise, Edge computing is greener still. Instead of on-premise, Edge stores data locally or near the source. These data centers are typically more efficient than cloud data centers as they require less power to run. To combat unnecessary carbon usage, companies can shift operations to the Edge – reducing data traffic and therefore ‘emissions’. 

To bridge the power gap between Cloud and Edge, Hyperscalers are constantly increasing the amount of renewable energy used at their data centers. By 2025, Azure and AWS promise to use 100% renewable energy, and Google plans to use exclusively carbon-free energy by 2030. While these goals will no doubt make Cloud increasingly carbon-efficient, there are still other aspects in the Hyperscaler cloud model that need addressing. 

To ensure data resiliency, Hyperscalers duplicate data across different regions. So, while your data could originate in France, it might also be in the US, and maybe Asia too. If hyperscalers shared data, this process could be directed through one server, vastly reducing traffic and energy consumption. As well as this, the location of data centers must be considered. A data center operating in Mexico, for example, will have a greater environmental impact than one working in Norway, and as warmer temperatures increase, so do energy outputs – for the worse. By sharing data in this way and considering center locations, we believe businesses can shrink the overall carbon footprint of IT even further once moving from on-premises to the Edge or the Cloud. 

What is IT for Green and why is it important?

While one pillar of a Green IT strategy focuses on making existing systems more sustainable, the second pillar should focus on what technologies you can introduce to your business to accelerate your sustainability journey. After all, most of the innovative sustainability projects we see out in the field today are either driven by IT technologies or involve IT elements that accelerate results.

A great example of this is smart technology.

Used in almost all walks of life today, from the smartwatch on your wrist to the sensor installed in the light on the street outside your home, sensors, IoT, and IT are transforming how the world measures, manages and reduces energy efficiency.

If there’s an IoT sensor in the light on your street, chances are you are living in a city, or town, that has embraced smart technology. Sensors deployed across smart cities can monitor almost everything, from water usage and air quality, to waste management and streetlights. They optimize everything, transferring real-time data between objects, people, and places, ensuring that everything runs as efficiently as possible. And it doesn’t stop at cities. These sensors can be used in buildings, such as offices, to help businesses monitor, manage, and reduce the energy used by electrical equipment in the office – for instance, reducing heating or cooling systems at certain times or turning off multiple pieces of equipment from a centrally managed system. 

Another great example of smart technology can be found in the agricultural industry, in which many farmers have embraced smart concepts to transform the efficiency of farming. Sensors installed into water systems can measure the dryness of the earth and the amount of water in the ground. This technology allows farmers to adjust how much they water their crops, saving tons of water a year and positively impacting the environment. 

Solutions such as these hold the answer to the future of our sustainable world and should be incorporated into a business's long-term green strategy. 

How to build a Green IT and IT for Green corporate strategy

To begin building a strategy that incorporates Green IT and IT for Green, you must first identify the infrastructure of technologies your business currently uses. To do this, we split a business into two categories – the consumer and the producer. Simply put, the consumer is the one using the IT, and the producer is the business delivering the digital solutions. 

Once you have identified how your consumers and producers use and store data, as well as how this impacts the business's total imprint, we recommend splitting the IT into three avenues: hardware, software, and usage. With all this information in hand, a business can begin to build a strategy that targets every aspect of its IT infrastructure, while also identifying where ‘IT for Green’ can be introduced to ensure sustainable targets are met long into the future. 

Why all industries need IT to become more sustainable 

So, why should your business use IT to accelerate its sustainable journey? Well, in short, the climate crisis isn’t going away. With countries being asked to move emission targets to 2030 , the world needs governments, businesses, and citizens to take action. Without IT, we do not believe that any actions taken will be strong enough. 

We understand that decisions based on IT systems will be driven by what is best for the business, so being a greener solution should be just one benefit of the technology. Depending on the industry your business is within, the impact of your switch will also differ. 

For instance, IT footprint is already a hot topic in the service industry. This is because IT is the infrastructure of service companies, such as banks, and therefore there will be a huge impact if these companies make the backbone of their business greener. Contrastingly, IT systems in industries such as production naturally have a lower importance to the company, and therefore the switch may be seen as less crucial. However, to meet sustainability goals IT still needs to be addressed. So, to appeal to all industries, Green IT solutions need to be both attractive and available to the business to encourage all companies to make the switch to meet their targets. 

Future-proofed sustainability

Although statistics show that IT is part of the climate problem, it is important to realize that it is also the solution. Innovative technologies offer a fast path to success: without them, the world would be unable to meet its sustainable targets. IT is key to the global fight against climate change - no smart city project or smart farming project is possible without it. So, if we want to continue enjoying the world we live in, companies must recognize that they have a corporate responsibility to be conscious of what they are emitting into the world. And to become truly sustainable, green strategies need to incorporate Green IT and IT for Green initiatives, to meet both short-term and longer-term climate targets. 

Would you like more information?

Si vous souhaitez en savoir plus sur cette publication, nos experts sont à votre disposition.