Running green, being green: the CIO’s field guide to sustainability

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Sustainability. Historically, it’s a term over-used but in practice, under-applied. What’s become evident is that the climate crisis has reached a tipping point – with frequently terrible consequences and freak weather events what feels like every month.

For all the phenomenal progress enabled by technology, including in creating positive environmental impacts such as improved efficiencies and the march towards paperless, the supply chains of most businesses today will have a hefty carbon footprint whether they realise it or not.

The reality is that digital services eat a lot of data. This all needs to be processed, stored, and transferred along networks, and that can mean a sizeable carbon footprint. A poor environmental reputation has shrouded cloud computing in particular, and not without reason: according to a 2016 report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information, cloud computing accounts for an estimated 1.8 percent of all electricity consumption in the USA – and between 5 to 9 percent of electricity consumption worldwide.

And with the upcoming ubiquity of the Internet of Things, 5G, and all the accompanying data, the cloud has been projected to account for 20% of all electricity usage by 2025, emitting more carbon emissions than any one country in the world excluding China, India, and the USA.

As ominous as this all sounds, there are two sides to the story. While many businesses have, arguably, been slow to address environmental concerns over the previous decades, the biggest technology players have taken sustainability increasingly seriously in recent years.

All of the ‘big three’ cloud players have committed to major change. Microsoft Azure is aiming to be carbon negative by 2030, while Amazon claims it’s en route to powering its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025. Google says it’s carbon neutral today, and it has pledged that, by 2030, all of its data centres will run on carbon-free energy.

But this isn’t a conversation only for the biggest hitters with the most resources. As technologists, CIOs have unique access to, and understanding of, the kind of data required for change and adaptability.

It’s been some time since CIOs were erroneously considered part of the back-office IT function. Today, CIOs have a critical seat at the table – and their expertise and opinions are vital for navigating successful, modern enterprises. But it was the Covid-19 crisis over the previous 18 months or so that really put CIOs in the spotlight. The world had no choice but to adapt at breakneck speed to stand up remote working, digital services, and really rely on the cloud to continue operating at all.

The pandemic has also proffered a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity not only for recalibrating the world of work in a more efficient manner, but also for refining supply chains so that they are truly sustainable, re-thinking procurement, and helping to leverage digital to ensure more green organisations.

This means not taking for granted that hybrid work or remote workforces are inherently more green – although cutting down on commuting costs surely will have an impact worldwide. The calculation is a little more complex than that assumption; organisations that truly strive to be carbon neutral or negative will also have to factor in hidden costs, including those related to cloud computing.

Yet, before the pandemic struck, many CIOs had already stepped up to the plate to help lead this conversation, even those working at businesses more historically associated with fossil fuels, such as BP.

Meanwhile, initiatives like the Greening Government Sustainable Technology Strategy 2020, led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), have set out some routes towards best practice in government computing – not only in ICT, but in leveraging digital services to reduce carbon footprint and boost energy efficiencies across the board.

“It is essential that we use cleaner and greener technology services and practices throughout the lifespan of ICT,” said National Grid CIO John Seglias, while he was at Defra. “This includes using technology to make energy efficiencies – such as offering alternatives to travel, continuing to reduce paper use, and waste sent to landfill including packaging.”

Meanwhile, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol serves as an end-to-end measurable framework for IT leaders to use, regardless of the individual IT setup of their organisation, with its various ‘scopes’ covering the differing strategies, ranging from all public cloud to on-prem servers.

Adjacent to this, leaders could back an industry-wide commitment to energy usage transparency – which would help create a clearer picture of the hidden costs of cloud computing, according to research by Imperial.

According to Bettina Tratz-Ryan, VP Analyst at Gartner, companies can reduce their own track record on pollution by focusing on improving supply-chain transparency in tandem with the circularity of products produced. CIOs have an important role to play here: in manufacturing, for instance, they can search for ways to optimise the lifecycle of products, and provide this information to customers so they can produce their own assessments.

Governments are only set to further tighten restrictions around carbon emissions, so businesses will be compelled to act. This isn’t just a legal obligation or the right thing to do, though; it’s good business sense. Climate change has now taken precedence as a top issue among consumers; in advanced economies such as the USA, the vast majority of respondents in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center – at 80 percent – said they would change their behaviour to combat adverse climate impacts. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme conducted the largest survey ever of its kind, finding that 64 percent of people worldwide recognised climate as a global emergency.

“Ultimately, expectations from customers, regulators and the public at large will only become more pressing as the effects of climate change become more pronounced,” said Daniel Bizo, senior research analyst with 451 Research in the report Multi-tenant Datacenters and Sustainability.

It’s vital, then, that companies of all stripes understand the role they must play in securing a sustainable future.

That’s why Dell is committed to its Dell Technologies’ Advancing Sustainability Moonshot Goal, which aims to ensure that, by 2030, businesses aren’t only equipped with the tools to create sustainable organisations, but that production is sustainable from end to end.

Among the included initiatives are commitments to reuse or recycle an equivalent product for every product bought, all packaging to be made from recycled or renewable material, and more than half of Dell’s product content to consist of recycled or renewable material.

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