Sustainability considerations for IT

Technology is often touted as the solution to the world’s climate crisis and a potential driver of sustainable solutions. Is this really the case? Or are there other considerations when thinking about sustainability in the context of IT?

At the recent COP28 climate conference, the global community agreed that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in order to slash the world’s carbon emissions and prevent further escalation of the climate crisis.

Technology will help us to make the switch away from fossil fuels; replacing them with renewable energy, hydrogen fuels and new nuclear options. Some argue that technology might even help us to reverse the climate crisis by enabling carbon capture. We are decades from this, of course. 

In the interim, we need to make the right choices to bring down our carbon emissions – and this includes our current use of technology.

An increasingly hungry infrastructure 

We’re told that the paperless office is the “green” office. But is the digital office really so green? In 2022, the estimated global data centre electricity consumption was 200 terawatt hours. That is more than the national energy consumption of some countries and around 1.3 percent of global electricity demand.

The energy consumption of the world’s datacentres is increasing rapidly. At the end of 2021 there were 728 hyperscale data centres in operation globally, with 314 new facilities planned. With this rate of growth, Synergy Research Group predicts there will be nearly 1,200 hyperscale data centres around the world by 2030.

The USA is host to the most data centres globally. There, data centre demand will more than double by 2030. It is expected that by then, with current infrastructure and energy patterns, the world’s centres will draw up to 21 percent of the world’s electricity supply. The use of the new, power-hungry AI technologies will stretch this further.

These are frightening statistics, especially if these data centres are powered by the existing mix of energy sources. While much is made of Icelandic natural geo-thermal powered data centres and natural arctic cooling, at the current time very little of the energy powering the world’s data centres is from renewable sources. As a result, the carbon footprint of these data centres equates to between two to three percent of the global carbon emissions.

By outsourcing our compute and storage to the cloud, we are effectively making this data power consumption someone else’s problem. But to green our supply chains, we must take responsibility for it. We must put pressure on big tech companies to power their data centres with renewable energy, make our environmental choices clear in our purchasing policies and aggressively delete the data we don’t need to hold.

The destruction of natural habitats

The sustainability considerations around our technology solutions are not limited to energy consumption. The raw materials used to make today’s technology hardware come from 50 of our 90 naturally occurring elements here on Earth. Many precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum, as well as rare earth elements like neodymium, yttrium, and dysprosium are used. And some, like hafnium, are rapidly dwindling in supply. The battle to control the mining of these elements is already underway. Meanwhile, their mining is responsible for local water pollution, soil degradation and the destruction of some of the world’s most precious habitats.

It’s estimated that over one billion laptops have been sold worldwide since 2010. As well as requiring a huge amount of resources to produce these devices, their short lifecycles mean that many of these billion devices are now little more than toxic waste. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated that 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was created in 2018. It often ends up as toxic waste dumps in some of the world’s poorest countries as part of “recycling” schemes. Worse, the UNEP’s figure is predicted to double by 2050 if concerted action to reduce electronic waste isn’t taken soon.

Good management of our supply chains and effective environmental policies require us to look beyond our use of these devices to ensure their responsible disposal. Where possible, computers and components should be refurbished and reused or sold or donated to be reused. If this isn’t possible, the individual components need to be dismantled and sold for reuse, melted or recycled as part of a responsible programme.

Using technology for good

There are, of course, already plenty of examples where technology is being used to help us reduce our global carbon footprint. In the area of smart buildings, for example, the use of connected sensors and metering is helping building managers to make informed decisions that drive down energy use.

Examples of technology being used for good extend across industries. For example, artificial intelligence is being used in the mapping and planning of aviation routes to reduce the quantities of fuel required to get from point A to point B under the prevailing conditions. Artificial intelligence is also helping climate scientists and meteorologists to model, understand and predict the effects of the climate crisis.

These are exciting use cases. However, in our eagerness to tell these stories, we cannot forget about nor turn a blind eye to the environmental footprint of the computer hardware and datacentres used to power these use cases.

The consumption of natural resources, habitat destruction, energy use and waste management required to create these solutions must be weighed against the benefits being delivered by our technology choices if technology is truly going to be a force for good.

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