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Can digital technologies be sustainable?

Can digital technologies be sustainable?

AnalysisGreen TechnologyTop Stories

Katie Gibson, an executive at the CIO Strategy Council, a non-profit that supports Canada’s Digital Transformation, tells us while technology will be an important component of the solution to climate change, it is also part of the problem.

Support for using technology to combat climate change has been snowballing. It’s the charismatic party guest who tells thrilling tales of technology conquering climate change. But what about the earnest guest who frets about the environmental impact of digital technologies? Who shares their opinions on data centers’ power usage effectiveness and smartphones’ total life cycle energy consumption?
That’s the distinction between Tech for Sustainability and Sustainable Tech. So let’s raise a glass of local, organic bubbly to both approaches because we’re in a climate crisis and we need both.

Katie Gibson, executive at the CIO Strategy Council

Tech for Sustainability
The premise of Tech for Sustainability is that new technologies can combat climate change by driving efficient use of resources across all sectors. Digital technologies like Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, 5G networks and Digital Twins can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by optimizing energy systems, manufacturing, buildings and infrastructure, vehicles and transport and agriculture. Video conferencing helped enable last year’s 7% drop in carbon emissions, which was driven largely by a decline in transportation.
Tech for Sustainability has champions like Bill Gates with his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Gates and a who’s-who of tech billionaires founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a US$2-billion fund investing in clean energy tech and innovation.
In Canada, we’re rightly going all in on Tech for Sustainability, as in the government’s A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy strategy and investment in Sustainable Development Technology Canada. A recent example is our Minister of Natural Resources’ announcement that NRCan will collaborate with Microsoft on using Artificial Intelligence to improve electric vehicle grid readiness. Many corporations with climate commitments are investing in technology solutions. And excellent Canadian cleantech companies are meeting the challenge.

Sustainable Tech
Sustainable Tech, on the other hand, asks us to mitigate technology’s negative environmental impacts through our IT operations and purchasing decisions. Definitions and calculations vary, but some academics estimate that digital energy consumption has been increasing by as much as 9% per year, versus 1.5% growth of overall energy consumption. They project that digital technology’s contribution to GHG emissions – the Paris Agreement’s focus – could double by 2025, reaching 8%.
For companies, adopting Sustainable Tech means peering under the hood and tracking energy consumption across the life cycle of data centers, networks and devices. The growth drivers for data center and network service demand are evident: exploding data volumes from streaming, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, 5G, Internet of Things, Virtual Reality and other digital technologies. For devices and hardware, by contrast, manufacturing and transportation cause most of the environmental impact. One analysis concluded that more than 90% of a smartphone’s total life cycle energy is consumed before it is even unboxed.
Many of these effects can be mitigated. This is where Tech for Sustainability can lend a hand – such as using AI to improve data center efficiency. For data centers, the transition to cloud and hyperscale data centers as well as efficiency upgrades to hardware – improving the centers’ power usage effectiveness – is offsetting growth in demand.
Of course, powering data centers and networks with renewable energy is a priority intervention. The major cloud providers and many network operators have made impressive sustainability gains. As a result, Accenture estimates that the average on-premise to cloud migration reduces energy consumption by 65% and cuts carbon emissions by 84%.
Sustainable Tech has captured the attention of global leaders. The Canadian government has recognized its importance in its Greening Government Strategy. France, Belgium and Switzerland have national organizations focused on sustainable IT and Germany funds a research group on digitalization and sustainability. Recently, several companies founded the European Green Digital Coalition to support the EU’s green and Digital Transformation.

The path forward
We all have a role in promoting Sustainable Tech to minimize digitalization’s risks while realizing its promise. Addressing this challenge demands government and private sector leadership, tapping the expertise of academics and environmental non-profits.
A Sustainable Tech approach requires CIOs and tech executives across all industries to ask vital questions, such as: What is the carbon footprint of our IT operations and supply chain? How can we integrate environmental considerations into data center and cloud infrastructure decisions? How would environmental considerations affect our decisions around data collection, use, exchange and storage? And what equipment and device purchasing, upgrading and disposal policies could reduce our environmental impact?
These are not the kinds of factors CIOs are used to weighing, but companies are starting to move in the right direction. Google, for instance, says it will run all its offices and data centers on carbon-free energy within a decade.

Microsoft, which became carbon neutral in 2012, has set an ambitious target to be carbon negative by 2030 and remove all historical carbon emissions by 2050. Apple plans to be carbon neutral by 2030, with Amazon aiming for 2040. But making our digital lifestyles sustainable will require commitments from companies across the board to build climate considerations into their technology decisions. While technology will be an important component of the solution to climate change, it is also part of the problem.

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