The case for action
Technology and digital have a tangible carbon footprint.
As people working in digital and technology, it can feel as if our carbon footprint is invisible. But digital technology does have a physical impact. As we know, carbon is generated by data, Google searches, video streaming, even sending emails (rather than printing documents).
So what is technology’s impact on carbon emissions and climate change? Here are some stats:
- In 2019, a report published by The Shift Project, a French think tank, claimed online video streaming in 2018 was responsible for nearly 300 million tons of CO2. This is ‘equivalent to what a country the size of Spain releases in a year – for all sectors combined’. And this is before Disney and Apple announced the launch of their streaming services… and lockdown happened.
- New research shows that if you turn your camera off during a videoconference, you can reduce your environmental footprint in that meeting by 96 percent.
- Hardware also plays a part. For example, a smart phone's production phase uses 90% of all its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, and that's before we've started to use it. You can read more here: RIBA: our journey in tackling the tech carbon impact
- Comparing tech with other industries we usually associate with carbon emissions, shows that ‘digital technologies have even surpassed the aerospace industry in terms of carbon emissions. While aviation's share of global CO2 emissions is estimated to be around 2.5%, and rising, nearly 4% of all CO2 emissions can now be attributed to global data transfer and the necessary infrastructure’.
Why we in technology need to take action now:
- The targets set by the Paris Climate Accord (COP21) in 2015 are due to be reviewed and ratcheted up at the next Climate Change Conference - COP 26, to be hosted by the UK Government in November 2021. The longer we take to achieve reductions, the greater those reductions will need to be to keep below the UN ceiling. Originally this was: less than a 2°C temperature rise since the pre-industrial era. There is now consensus that the limit should be 1.5°C
- Tech is an enabler of reductions, from allowing people to meet without travelling to providing data and analytical power to streamline business and consumer activities. The terms and pricing – unlimited data, the cloud, cheap storage – create the impression that tech is an infinite resource, but tech data also has its own carbon footprint!
- While other sectors’ carbon footprint has stabilised or even fallen, in developed countries such as the UK, tech’s is rising. By 2025 tech is forecast to generate the same amount of carbon globally as car usage!
- The impact is hidden to end-users in the UK, with technology products built (and scrapped) abroad and technology operations hosted in network and data centres remote from the user.
- Quotation taken from 'How to reduce the environmental impact of your next virtual meeting' by Kelley Travers in MIT News: https://news.mit.edu/2021/how-to-reduce-environmental-impact-next-virtual-meeting-0304
- United Nations, Climate Change (refers to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC special report 2018): https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/climate-change
- The Shift Project, “the carbon transition think tank”: https://theshiftproject.org
Who’s driving this?
What regulations are there, and from whom can we learn?
- Under the Kyoto and Paris agreements, each country set its own plans. In the UK, the government’s expert panel, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) - set up under the Climate Change Act 2008 - advise on targets and report progress. They have recommended plans to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
- The CCC set out its strategic framework in 2008, with greenhouse gas targets (Carbon budgets) for 2008-12, 2013-17, and 2018-22. This framework would give government, industry and consumers time to respond, allowing lead times for innovation, technical adaptation and behavioural changes. Three more Carbon budgets were published at 5-year intervals, each looking approximately 15 years into the future.
- In June 2019, the UK government amended the 2008 Act to set a more ambitious target: net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, by the same date, 2050. The most recent, Sixth Carbon Budget, published in Dec 2020, recommends actions to be undertaken to achieve these targets (and on the rolling 5-year cycle, sets targets for emissions, 2033-37). It highlights the need to reduce demand for energy, travel, meat and dairy, and switch to low carbon fuels, alongside transforming the supply-side of energy and agriculture.
- The plans have focused on sectors with the most significant carbon impact. These don’t include Technology as a sector in its own right:
- Surface transport
- Buildings (once occupied)
- Manufacturing and construction
- Electricity generation
- Fuel supply
- Agriculture, land use and forestry
- F-gases (Fluorinated gases – e.g. refrigerants)
- Greenhouse gas removals (Carbon capture)
- Finding how these aspirations translate into Government regulations or support for medium or small businesses is not a straightforward forward task. DEFRA (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) and BEIS (Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) both publish Greenhouse gas and Carbon dioxide figures. Departments covering different sectors of the economy are responsible for initiatives in their sector – e.g. Transport, for electric cars; DEFRA, for agriculture. The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own parallel responsibilities. DEFRA has published a green ICT and digital services strategy, but specifically for government services. The government sees the global focus on carbon reduction as an opportunity for jobs and promotes innovation on the supply. However, this document does seem to be aimed at Tech teams who are consumers rather than producers.
- For organisations on the demand side, the government seems to be using two levers:
- The carrot: 53 sectors have voluntarily agreed on Climate Change Agreements (CCAs) with the Government at an industry level. The Environment Agency lists organisations responsible for these umbrella agreements. Under these, individual companies then agree on their targets, and in return become eligible for lower tax on their fuel bills. There is one relevant to Tech: Data Centres. The coordinating body is the trade body, TechUK.
- The stick: For larger companies (£36m+ turnover, 250+ employees), SECR, Streamlined Energy Carbon Reporting became mandatory from April 2019  Even low users – 40MWh pa or less – must report, even if only to confirm their low use. Unquoted companies, partnerships, charities etc. were all included from this date, yet most Tech Directors don’t appear to have had any involvement in reporting.
- The largest companies, e.g. Unilever, Lloyds Bank, have expert teams working on their carbon impact. They’re able to pass on a few tips, but it’s not easy to draw practical lessons for smaller companies from these larger conglomerates.
- While government concentrates on the most prominent companies and most carbon-intense industries, many other organisations still want to reduce carbon. Motives include pressure from their own employees, customers, and investors. The dramatic increase in activity which took place in 2020 in response to social movements showed that bad publicity, potential reputational damage and a solid moral case could have a much more significant impact than years of rational argument and carefully calculated financial business cases.
- Alongside UK government initiatives, international standards have been developed to allow investors and customers to compare the environmental footprint of their supply base. International charity CDP asks companies to provide data and ensures consistency, but once again, their target is the most prominent companies (2400 in Europe, 9600 worldwide). Alongside Carbon, they collect data for Forests and Water supplies. Their reporting aligns with TCFD (Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures), a G20 initiative to recognise the impact of climate risk on the world’s financial stability.
- Finally, some organisations choose to look at their environmental impact as part of their wider Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) /Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. These are often based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, including affordable, clean energy and climate action, alongside other targets for the planet and its people.
- The Climate Change Committee (CCC), Sixth Carbon Budget: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/sixth-carbon-budget/
- Environment Agency, Climate Change Agreements (CCAs): https://www.gov.uk/guidance/climate-change-agreements--2
- Carbon Trust, SECR explained: https://www.carbontrust.com/news-and-events/insights/secr-explained-streamlined-energy-carbon-reporting-framework-for-uk
- BEIS/DEFRA, Environmental Reporting Guidelines, SECR: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/850130/Env-reporting-guidance_inc_SECR_31March.pdf
- UN Sustainable Development goals: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals