COP26: IT Is as Bad as Coal Mining

Image credit: iStockphoto/SIYAMA9

The negative environmental impacts of cryptocurrency mining have been well documented. But an innovative tie-up between a renewable energy producer and a Bitcoin miner in Australia is set to offer a solution.

Mawson Infrastructure Group plans to roll out crypto mines across Australia. Under a deal with renewable energy company Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners, all of the mines will be powered by renewable energy from biomass plants around the tourist town of Byron Bay.

This is just as well because the mines will add around 0.4 exahash to global crypto mining operations, and to do that will require a lot of energy.

This will go some way to mitigate an industry in which Bitcoin and Ethereum together reportedly use around twice as much energy as Sweden, and a mid-sized electric car could be driven 1.8 million kilometers on the energy burned to create a single Bitcoin.    

With COP26 in Glasgow wrestling with global commitments to net-zero emissions, the Australian Bitcoin initiative is a timely one for an industry many consider the IT sector’s equivalent of the coal industry.

Slow progress

But while Mawson is taking the lead, how are other sectors of the IT industry faring with their commitments to net-zero?

As Aapo Markkanen, a senior director analyst at Gartner, reminded a group of executives at a webinar recently, if the internet was a country, its electricity use would be ranked third in the world after China and the U.S.

Maarkan points out that although the internet accounts for 3.7% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, digital can also be an engine of sustainability if positioned effectively. 

However, according to a whitepaper presented at COP26 by the WG21 Study Group, industry progress has been slow.

“Whilst sustainability has reached the board room for many forward-thinking organizations, it has yet to reach the confines of many IT Management departments as a major priority,” the authors write.

They make the point that while the focus is often placed on reducing energy consumption, an even more important goal is to deal with the environmental impact of creating IT services in the first place.

“Whilst energy consumption is important, the precious minerals and finite resources used to create this hardware has a disproportionately large impact on the planet”

This includes the lifecycle of IT hardware from the rare earth mine to the electronic dumping ground, an issue the authors say the IT community is yet to grapple with as it prioritizes energy consumption.

“The consumption of IT services, including software and cloud services, are all underpinned by hardware, either on-premises or in data centers,” the whitepaper says.

“And whilst energy consumption is important, the precious minerals and finite resources used to create this hardware have a disproportionately large impact on the planet. It’s not just a case of energy consumption and making sure assets are disposed of securely and ethically. It’s also about managing the consumption of assets throughout their entire lifecycle.”

Extractive industry

The whitepaper also argues that IT is an “extractive industry.”

To build equipment to satisfy the growth in demand for all things digital, from mobile phones and IoT sensors to laptops and cloud data centers, a vast array of precious metals is required, such as silver, gold, copper, and platinum.

“An end-of-life printed circuit board (PCB) may contain up to 60 different chemical elements and have a metal content as high as 40% by weight, so [it] should be viewed as a valuable secondary source of precious and base metals. The metal content of a PCB is typically ten to a hundred times higher than that of conventionally mined ores,” the whitepaper says, quoting the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Despite these precious metals being finite, less than 20% are recycled. Dumping e-waste has a toxic impact on society and the environment as the precious metals are released back into the air, soil, and water.

There are some initiatives to address this problem. Analyst firm IDC predicts that by 2025, 90% of G2000 companies will mandate reusable materials in IT hardware supply chains, carbon neutrality targets for providers’ facilities, and lower energy use as prerequisites for doing business.

Gartner’s Aapo Markkanen talks up the idea of the “circular economy,” a model which promotes reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as much as possible.

To this end, he suggests using strategies such as blockchain to trace a material’s origin and promote waste exchanges to facilitate “cross-industry circularity.”

The cloud can also be a part of the solution. IT analyst house 451 Research claims European enterprises could dramatically improve their sustainability credentials by shuttering their data centers and moving their business applications to the public cloud.

So there’s clearly more to green IT than plugging in the data center to renewable energy and using efficient air conditioning.

That’s a decent start. However, a more holistic approach to the issue will require the IT industry to pull its weight and help the world achieve its net-zero targets.

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

Image credit: iStockphoto/SIYAMA9