Blog author: Eric Zie, CEO, GoCodeGreen
The decarbonisation of technology is a key aspect of the journey to Net Zero. It has been estimated that the ICT sector accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that’s growing by 9% every year. Data centres, meanwhile, use 3% of global energy and represent 2% of global GHG emissions – the same proportion as the entire aviation industry. On current growth trajectories, data centres could be consuming 20% of global energy by 2030.
It's an issue that’s very much on the minds of CIOs and technology leaders. Without doubt, significant progress can be made by continuing with existing strategic priorities that include removing legacy systems, driving operational efficiency, modernising applications and migrating to the cloud. These are major levers for carbon reduction. In the public sector, I see many government departments and functions taking a leading position. They are acting as pioneers and are ahead of many private sector organisations in their approach.
Value chain challenge
But there remains much more to do. The carbon profile of technology is complex and spans many lifecycle stages. It’s also dispersed right across the value chain. As with so many other aspects of sustainability, the really difficult part is tackling those Scope 3 supplier and partner emissions. According to the Carbon Trust, up to 90% of an organisation’s carbon impact can come from Scope 3; while according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, up to 29% of Scope 3 emissions can be ICT-related.
Effectively tackling the problem can be a major contribution to achieving Net Zero. Which CIO wouldn’t want to be associated with that?
Putting this into action means really understanding every component part of the carbon footprint of the technology estate. We sometimes encounter the argument that “We’ve moved to the cloud – we’re done”, but I’m afraid it’s just not as simple as that. Firstly, because by no means all cloud providers are running on 100% renewables yet. And secondly, because cloud usage is only one part of the picture. Most organisations still have quite significant legacy environments running on-premise, and their cloud footprint is a mixture of public, private and hybrid with varying degrees of sustainability associated.
Measuring to manage
It's why we created GoCodeGreen – a platform that codifies the ICT sector guidance relating to the GHG Protocol, to help organisations understand and measure their digital carbon footprint. It effectively treats digital applications including software like physical products so that the carbon impacts can be baselined, benchmarked and actionable insights derived. This includes the engineering of digital products, CPU performance, memory and storage, tooling, the physical travel of software engineers and developers, and more.
Our assessment process maps activity rates and emission factors (using relevant sources such as Defra in the UK), and looks across the whole lifecycle from the production of a digital product or asset, to running it, to decommissioning it at the end of its life. In this way, we can go far beyond just a cloud-based assessment: it’s possible to build up a broader picture that connects the pieces of the technology estate together. From this, CIOs can develop detailed and informed strategies to accelerate the decarbonisation journey over the coming years.
Putting change into action
To date, we have worked with a range of clients (including pilots with parts of government such as the MOD and DWP) and have completed full lifecycle assessments of 27 digital products. We have found that these represent around 10,000 tonnes of carbon a year – and that this could be reduced by 56% if our full recommendations were implemented, saving nearly 6,000 tonnes of carbon, or 20 million kwh of energy. As well as reducing carbon, this would also mean a saving of around £3.7 million in electricity costs (at 2021 prices) – a reminder that decarbonisation doesn’t only make sustainability sense, but can engineer valuable cost reductions too.
As you might expect, we ran our process on ourselves too to prove the concept and ensure that we are practising what we preach. This led to us completely moving our hosting service from one cloud provider to another and rationalising some of our own software engineering processes. This left us with 29 tonnes of residual carbon, which we have offset to become a carbon neutral business.
With sustainability such a high priority in government and the public sector, digital decarbonisation can be a critically important component. It’s time to make technology part of the solution, not the problem, and leverage digital as a pathway to a greener, more sustainable future.
What is top of mind for CIOs around the digital sustainability agenda?