Dirty Digital’s Days Are Numbered

Image credit: iStockphoto/Hramovnick

Digital technologies all seem so clean and non-polluting until you realize that that is not necessarily true.

The incredible revelations about the mining of Bitcoin, which Cambridge University's analysis suggests uses more electricity annually than the whole of Argentina, might be extreme. Still, they are the tip of the iceberg. Bitcoin has to be the dirtiest digital currency on the planet.

Sure, your organization might be using micro-electronics and Wi-Fi, but what about the energy which went into powering that? It may have come from the filthiest coal power anywhere in the world.

Have you considered the impacts of mining the rare earths which are essential for modern computing?

You might be outsourcing your data center, but what is the carbon footprint of your outsourcing partner?

The building your servers are in might be desperately in need of retrofitting, and the air-conditioning required to keep the warehouse at the right temperature might be old and inefficient.

You might have an immaculately clean office with the latest technology, but what has been the environmental cost of creating that?

Data centers are also pollution centers

According to the Centre for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, electricity used for US servers and data centers creates 35.9 million metric tons of CO2 each year. Every kWh used by office equipment requires an additional 0.2 to 0.5 kWh for air conditioning.

Just as the momentum for Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) principles are sweeping through the corporate world, it seems that the technology sector is now — gradually — embracing the concept of Green IT and sustainability.

Indeed, technology has the potential to eliminate waste and cut down on energy use. The retirement of paper-based systems is a positive, but beyond that, there is a sustainability payoff in using intelligent automation and artificial intelligence solutions.

The good news is that as organizations increasingly move to the cloud, they can be confident that their cloud providers are using renewable energy. According to Forrester, the hyperscaler public cloud providers are using 100% renewables.

But as Forrester senior analyst Phil Brunkard says, “there is a lot more to sustainability in IT than just a ‘green data center’ and thinking that if your IT services are predominantly in the cloud, you are doing fine.”

“Tech leaders must develop sustainability strategies across the full tech lifecycle, covering procurement, operations, and IT equipment retirement.”

A pandemic shift in green thinking

Brunkard sees positives in the post-COVID-19 environment as IT leaders update remote working and digital workplace strategies that will contribute to their organization’s sustainability agenda.

“The opportunity to adopt internet of things solutions to integrate smart heating, lighting and environmental controls extends the potential for the digital workplace agenda to finally achieve the smart building reality,” he says.

Technology leaders, says Brunkard, need to think outside of their own organization to understand how sustainable they are.

In a world full of collaborations, outsourcing, and extended supply chains, it is possible that even if your organization, in siloed isolation, ticks the sustainability box that can hide a problem elsewhere.

The post-COVID-19 environment of increased remote working also presents opportunities and challenges. An organization might need less physical office space, but how can it monitor the carbon footprint of hundreds of employees working individually?

Brunkard talks about understanding technology as a “circular economy.” What goes around comes around.

“This goes beyond stipulating green requirements in procurement contracts or setting policies for zero-landfill asset disposal,” he says.

“This should be a given. Instead, it is about truly evaluating, challenging, and seeking out innovation in the entire ‘cradle to grave’ of every tech investment.”

Investment risk reckoning

There are also much broader implications for green technology beyond the raw numbers on the carbon footprint.

Green IT can impact brand, customer trust, and employee retention, and in the case of publicly listed companies, can have an investment and financial implication.

As Larry Fink, the chief executive of the world’s largest funds manager BlackRock, says: “Climate risk is investment risk.”

So, what to do? If it seems that technology leaders are late arrivals to the sustainability agenda, all is not lost.

There are rigorous and thorough frameworks being developed by the analyst groups which point the way forward. Forrester, for example, has a technology sustainability framework that provides some guidance.

The upside is that as organizations embrace Green IT, they can be confident that their technology investments are not only making the business more agile and efficient but are making a positive contribution to the environment.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the ANZ correspondent for CDOTrends and HR&DigitalTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborating with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Hramovnick