Digital technologies are one of the major environment polluters, thus contributing to climate change. The volume of emissions generated by the manufacture or operation of devices is 2.5-times greater than the emissions produced by air transport.
When compared with the biggest polluters among countries, the "land of digital technology" would rank third, topped only by China and the United States. They are responsible for up to 4 percent of the world's annual carbon dioxide emissions. Not everyone flies, but even in the world's poorest countries, many people have smartphones or other electronic devices. According to the University of Birmingham, more than 60% of the world's population owns a mobile phone or smartphone. Their production depends on precious metals such as nickel, indium, lithium, cobalt and others. If we cannot replace these metals, the whole digital technology ecosystem might collapse in the future.
European Union pushes for emission reduction
Europe is supposed to be carbon-neutral by 2050. To achieve this goal, the EU has adopted a number of directives. One of them is the classification of economic activities that are environmentally friendly or improve the environment, the so-called taxonomy. The EU has also introduced mandatory reporting of non-financial indicators, which will apply to up to approximately 50 000 companies. Compliance with the taxonomy will be crucial for attracting investment and enforcing the European Green Deal. It will provide companies, investors and other stakeholders with credible information on the environmental impact of companies' economic activities. Companies are seeking to calculate their compliance with the taxonomy before they are obliged to do so. They will thus find out which activities they will need to enhance in the future in order to improve their compliance. This can be crucial for raising investments. Parts of the taxonomy also relate to information technologies, for example, ways of storing data, sustainable procurement of equipment and practicing circular economy interventions in IT (more information below)
Video-production creates as many greenhouse gas emissions as Spain
The covid pandemic has accelerated the development of digital technologies and their use not only for work but also for entertainment. Videos are responsible for up to 1 percent of the world's CO2 emissions, which is about as much as the entire Spanish economy. The production of computers is also demanding, consuming 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and up to 1.5 tonnes of water per unit. 90 per cent of the energy is absorbed by the production of the equipment itself, with only the remaining 10 per cent by its operation.
Circular economy - one of the solutions
The production of new devices will be more energy intensive and expensive due to the limited sources of precious metals. It is therefore appropriate to rethink current behavioural patterns regarding the use and replacement of old equipment with new. The circular economy offers a number of steps that can contribute to reducing emissions from the use and production of digital technologies and devices. For instance, users can increase the intensity of their use by sharing them among multiple people – not every member of a household necessarily needs their own laptop. We can also buy refurbished products that are still functional and can last for years to come. We will fix what is broken, not replace it immediately with a new product – this is also one of the principles of the circular economy. A software update that "boosts" older equipment can also help. However, manufacturers and scientists have a role to play too. Innovations can help reduce the amount of precious metals, by recycling them and reusing them in the production of new devices, just like discarded parts from older ones.
Another problem is the fact that manufacturers cannot guarantee security for users of the devices for long periods of time. Samsung, for example, is now extending it to four years from three. If an employee has access to sensitive data, this poses a problem for the company, so the device must be replaced.
Save energy and reduce carbon footprint
The most environmentally friendly computer is one that doesn't need to be manufactured, so it's best to extend the life of an existing one. When buying a new computer, we can use labels such as EPEAT and TCO to help us choose, as they guarantee lower energy consumption by the manufacturer. We can also use software that analyses and reduces electricity consumption. A big energy guzzler is the monitor. We can choose monitors with the aforementioned labels, and we can also minimise electricity consumption by reducing the screen brightness or by not choosing a screen that is larger than needed. It is important to switch it off when we are not using it or to put it in sleep mode. When using multiple monitors, it is worth considering whether we really need them all. Similar recommendations apply to smartphones.
Another way we can minimise negative impact on the environment is to reduce the number of documents we print and to use clouds or data centres wisely (turn off active elements that we are not currently using, activate energy savers, etc.).
How to boost sustainability in IT?
It won't work without a clear commitment from management. We then form a working group, outline the goals and the steps to achieve them. We will also determine how to measure results. Through audit and analysis, we will understand the company's strategy, the challenges it faces, audit its infrastructure, analyse the impact of the strategy in place and define the opportunities. As a next step, key performance indicators (KPIs) will be identified. To do so, it is essential to find out at the initial stage of such a project how the company is doing in terms of electricity consumption, what carbon footprint it is creating, implementing a benchmarking framework and monitoring appropriate practices, and so on. The carbon footprint itself can be calculated according to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and also in accordance with ISO 14 064 or 14 067. We then compare the company with similar companies and their performance and define short- and long-term recommendations. We identify opportunities and solutions to improve the situation and performance, calculate the financial savings and determine how the company has been able to contribute to greener environmental behaviour. In the last step, we propose a strategy that can sustain and support the changes, also thanks to internal communication.