Ways to address and curtail the alarming and increasingly irreversible effects of carbon dioxide emissions are becoming more central to organizational growth, reputation, and culture. At the same time, data centers, technology churn, and all other forms of digitalization are driving electricity consumption, so the pressure on companies to act to reduce their climate footprint is increasing.
To help mitigate these trends, the EU is preparing stricter reports for EU companies, and those in accordance with EU law, which include sustainability scores based on carbon dioxide emissions related to indirect emissions as well as internal operations. That means everything posted in the cloud by third parties and system integrators must also be reported.
For IT departments, this means that responsibility for carbon footprints increases drastically, as the majority of their operations are often outsourced to other suppliers.
But the overall sustainability agenda and the IT agenda aren’t often as aligned as they should be, says Niklas Sundberg, CIO at Assa Abloys Global Solutions, which develops electronic locks and other access systems. Sundberg has also written the book Sustainable IT Playbook for Technology Leaders.
“When the new EU taxonomy comes in 2024, we will start reporting nonfinancial targets,” he says. “This will go fast in the future and be a big challenge, so it’s important for companies to keep track of their key areas when it comes to sustainability. And it can look different depending on whether it’s the manufacturing industry or banking.”
Forging ahead: What IT can do to reduce data center emissions
For IT, the figures are clear. In Sweden, for example, the average data center emissions is 27 grams per kilowatt-hour compared to 880 grams per kilowatt-hour in Australia, 435 grams per kilowatt-hour in China, and 555 grams per kilowatt-hour in the US. So choosing a cloud provider or a strategic location for an internal data center based on how much they use renewable energy is one of the measures that really makes a big difference, he says.
The stricter measures enacted will play an important role in the bigger picture of carbon dioxide emissions, as data centers’ share of electricity consumption at the current rate is expected to increase to almost 3,000 terawatt hours per year by 2030—and more than double that if nothing further is done about it. “In total, the forecast is that there will be approximately 40,000 terawatt-hours by 2030, so if IT-related activities are 20% of that, then we have to address it,” says Sundberg.
In addition to data centers, he adds, requirements can be set for the software that cloud providers offer since some development languages are more efficient than others.
But there’s much more than that to do for CIOs and technology leaders, not least when it comes to purchasing computers and mobile devices.
IT needs to shift to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’
Sundberg emphasizes that today’s wear-and-tear mentality is unsustainable in the long run, so cultural shifts must take place terms of adopting a “reduce, reuse, recycle” management approach. “We often have many IT consultants inside companies, but why should we provide them with computers?” says Sundberg. “They often already have that. Instead, we can equip them with a device-as-a-service client that provides access and protects the content that’s linked to a particular company.”
And many companies have also begun to extend the time that an employee can have their computer before it’s replaced. “I know of a company that has extended its hardware life cycle from three to four years and reduced its CO2 emissions for computers by 25%,” says Sundberg. “We need to focus on replacing components, such as batteries, hard drives, and memory, more than the entire computer when performance begins to decline.”
He also stresses the importance of being more efficient with purchasing, because about 80% of emissions for computers takes place during production, so choosing computers where much of the material is recycled is an important step. Reusing used mobile devices that have been refreshed and restored with new batteries and screens is another effective principle to adopt.
Making demands on suppliers’ cloud services is one thing, but enforcing that employees keep computers longer and get used mobile devices might be unpopular, despite the greater good. “So it’s important to explain it, to have a story about what the idea is with it,” Sundberg says. “It’s also about giving employees alternatives. Many want to be able to influence their climate footprint, so the solutions we offer should be at the same level or better than what people already have.” In time, he hopes that more climate-friendly alternatives will emerge so all mobile devices can be easily repaired and that more products will be made from recycled materials.
“To be able to work seriously with sustainability in your IT department, it’s important to map and inventory what you have and what impression it gives,” he says. “What are the carbon dioxide emissions for employees’ mobile phones and computers? What does it look like for the data centers you use?” But it also involves things that digitalization makes possible, like how to use it to reduce travel and control energy efficiency on site, as well as looking at what the supplier network looks like. Then a clear strategy for a green agenda can be created where long-term and research-based goals can be set and routinely appraised. These are make or break times, but Sundberg sees positive signs. “I think the interest has only increased in the last two years,” he says. “A lot of CIOs realize that we need to address the issue, create forums, and share information about it. And many have appointed people who are dedicated precisely to working with sustainability on the IT side.”