For many of us around the world, COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, is a virtual event. It has broad online coverage and participation. As such, sustainable digital technology should be a priority for the event. COP26 is supposed to set an example. Yet, when Fershad Irani reviewed the event’s site, ukcop26.org, he found that some of the design choices leave a needlessly heavy CO2 footprint.
Global ICT is seen as a means of reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors, but these technologies contribute to Global Warming in their own right.
The good folks at UK Government Digital Services are now aware of the inefficiencies in the COP26 site, and they’re addressing the problem. But why are we still designing sites that aren’t optimized to reduce their CO2 footprint? It may be time for a globally recognized green certification for ICT.
Global ICT is seen as a means of reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors, but these technologies contribute to Global Warming in their own right. The numbers vary, but most studies allot that digital technologies are already contributing 1.5 percent to 6 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. This is a concern. And without intervention, the emissions from global ICT will rise. Internet traffic is increasing exponentially to meet consumer demand. Although there are improvements in the energy efficiency of global data centers, it simply isn’t keeping up with the growth in the industry.
For at least two decades we’ve viewed digital technologies as a green alternative to old legacy processes for managing our organizations. While the technology may be greener, it clearly has an environmental impact that we have been overlooking. Aside from the electricity required to run digital devices, there is a huge environmental impact in mining and processing the rare minerals we need to produce them. There is also a problem with the disposal of products, many of which are built in a way that makes them impossible to repair or upgrade.
The demand for greener ICT is growing.
The demand for greener ICT is growing. In the last few years we have seen the Principles for Digital Development, the Sustainable Web Manifesto, the International CDR Manifesto, just to name a few. There are also virtual events, including SustainableUX, which is pushing digital tools to be more sustainable. More and more people are seeing that digital technology is also part of the problem, and we need to build better guidelines for our industry.
The building industry has benefited from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a green building certification program developed in the United States that has gained traction globally. Likewise, many people are familiar with ENERGY STAR Certification for a range of products. These are generally for more consumer-focused products, but it is a brand that has achieved a certain level of recognition for products that consume less energy. An increasing number of consumers seek products that have the ENERGY STAR logo on them. The certification even appears on many digital products, but the global ICT sector is much larger than monitors and printers. ENERGY STAR is great, but it just wasn’t designed for services provided by most digital companies. We need a certification for all of our digital technology.
Some of the big digital companies are now making claims about becoming carbon neutral or even carbon negative. I do love Microsoft’s bold goals:
“By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”
Google claims to be carbon neutral already, and the company plans to exceed this by “decarbonizing our energy consumption so that by 2030, we’ll operate on carbon-free energy, everywhere, 24/7.”
But what does that mean? How does a consumer compare those kinds of claims? And how are those kinds of commitments measured so we know something about the carbon footprint that companies are leaving today, and where they are in their progress toward their stated goals? Do those goals include only the Scope 1 and 2 emissions (those which are produced directly by the company) or do they also include Scope 3 emissions, which are generated by the supply chains that the companies use? And what about the consumer’s use of their product or service? What can we do to take this corporate leadership and make it something that is helping to drive us all to live and work within the limits of a circular economy?
Answers to most of those questions will have to depend on self-reporting at this stage. Until carbon reports are as rigorously audited as financial reports are, we are going to have to trust the data provided by the environmental, social and corporate governance team within each business.
Whatever reporting is done, organizations will have to account for the many layers in our modern networked world. We all rely on the Internet, but few are really aware of how it works. Simplifying that complexity to something generally understandable will take a lot of work. Having something like a digital LEED certification, though, would do a great deal to support the adoption of best practices by organizations working for sustainability.
Creating a standard that would allow businesses to make comparable claims would do a lot to separate marketing fluff from true action.
We need to measure what matters, but we must also ensure there is proper oversight to see that corrections are made and that opportunities for improvement are seized. Creating a standard that would allow businesses to make comparable claims would do a lot to separate marketing fluff from true action. It would also be a motivator to allow businesses to differentiate themselves. This type of market incentive should help drive digital industries to reduce their environmental footprint over time.
COP26 is the right time for leaders to stand up and make commitments to reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions. But those commitment will be meaningless if we don’t have a mechanism to hold governments and businesses accountable. Yes, we need to reward early adopters. But we also need to make goals attainable so that, someday, energy efficiency and sustainability is built into technology without question. Third-party certification like ENERGY STAR and LEED shouldn’t be the exception in a sustainable future, but an expectation. We’ve got a long way to go before we achieve that, but it is a goal worth pursuing.
About the Author
Mike Gifford is Senior Strategist at CivicActions and a Drupal Core Accessibility Maintainer. Previously, he was CEO of OpenConcept Consulting Inc. and Co-founder of CivicTech Ottawa, Canada. He is also a father, Quaker and a prolific photographer. See his contributions to GitHub and his photos on Flickr.