IT Sustainability Think Tank: Cutting enterprise carbon emissions amid the energy crisis

The Ukraine conflict has significantly worsened the global energy situation by straining the supply of gas, a crucial resource at the moment. The UK has the highest household energy costs in all of Europe. To keep households warm, and for electricity, the UK government has relied on gas for decades. With the price instability in the international markets, this over-reliance and inability to take proactive, decisive measures to move towards renewable energy in a meaningful way are now costing the UK dearly.

Even with the government’s pledge to decarbonise electricity generation by 2035, the country will remain heavily dependent on gas. The need to rethink our energy system and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels has never been greater.

According to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, dividing emissions into three groups can help measure progress towards the reductions needed to keep global temperature rises well below 1.5°C.

Scope 1 emissions, also known as direct emissions, are those an organisation produces while using assets that it owns or maintains, such as equipment used in manufacturing or production, use of vehicles, heating of buildings, and use of electricity for computers.

Scope 2 includes electricity purchased by the enterprise, and carbon reduction there comes with a heavy reliance on the grid becoming greener. Since these are the emissions for which companies have the most control, the majority of companies have focused on Scope 1 and 2 emissions.

Very little attention has been paid to the emissions resulting from the consumption of goods and services, which falls under Scope 3, and their impact on sustainable development goals (SDGs). Although Scope 3 emissions are seldom recorded, they can account for many times the impact of Scope 1 and 2 emissions – as per Deloitte accounting for more than 70% of an organisation’s carbon footprint – depending on the nature of the organisation.

In light of the climate emergency, there is a growing need to reduce greenhouse gases wherever possible, and organisations are increasingly expected to take more responsibility in addressing Scope 3 as they become more aware of their true carbon footprint.

What should enterprises do?

Organisations must integrate sustainable development goals into their operations and identify opportunities to achieve meaningful sustainability. IT’s role as an enabler for innovation, development and implementation will lead to greater energy efficiency and resource efficiency, and progress towards these goals.

Something that is often overlooked is digital carbon emissions. Emissions resulting from the production, use and data transfer of digital devices and infrastructure, which includes datacentres and transmission networks, is enormous.

According to study by the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance (EFWA), carbon emissions generated by the internet for a year are the environmental equivalent of losing an area of rainforest the size of half a million football pitches every single day. Digital technologies are part of the solution. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without software.

These technologies should be used in a sustainable manner and to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. It is possible to reduce energy consumption and its footprint by harnessing computing power itself to make devices and systems “smarter” — including vehicles, homes, meters, grids and cities. Organisations need to take the initiative to encourage the “responsible consumption” of digital technologies and eliminate needless and avoidable excesses.

Finding high-integrity initiatives that adhere to reliable climate approaches is vital for enterprises in terms of taking responsibility. It is important to prioritize “insetting” over easier-to-access “offsetting” whenever possible. Essentially, carbon insetting, as per the World Economic Forum, is about doing more good than less harm within a value chain. While soaring temperatures will continue to cause concern, enterprises must decarbonise their own value chains to develop more eco-friendly solutions.

As discussed in a previous article, the approach to IT and procurement processes should be guided by circular economy principles, promoting durability of infrastructure and devices with emphasis on reusing, remanufacturing and recycling IT resources, components and materials.

Embracing the circular economy can pay significant dividends in achieving better sustainability in the IT estate. A circular economy approach should be applied to enterprises’ supply chains and guide the selection and management of their suppliers. IT leaders should always look at the entire lifecycle of the organisation’s products, services and processes, and the role technology can play in improving sustainability.

The embodied carbon of hardware and devices in an organisation’s IT estate is often overlooked. Depending on the carbon intensity of your energy mix, the embodied carbon cost of a device can be significant compared with the carbon cost of the electricity powering it. The amount of carbon pollution embodied in a device refers to the emissions that occur during manufacture and disposal.

Include both the carbon pollution produced by the computer’s embodied carbon and the carbon emissions produced by running software programmes and processing on the computer when determining the total carbon caused by computers. IT leaders should use sustainable software engineering practices in the design, development and maintenance of digital technologies. These practices can help shape the procurement policies of tomorrow.

The use of renewable energy in datacentres and energy-efficient servers is a positive development, but it’s not a panacea. There should be “checks and balances” in place to make sure excesses are reviewed in a world where most energy comes from fossil fuels.

It is important to evaluate the sustainability impact of some of the products, services and behaviours they promote. Sustainable innovation could hold the key to achieving a net-zero economy a reality – the creation of something that enhances social, economic and environmental sustainability.

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