When the next wave of IT transformation comes, green design principles are going to drive it. Making technology more sustainable is, of course, a worthy goal for society and for the planet. On a less macro level it’s also vital for companies’ efforts to achieve their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets, upgrade their systems’ efficiency, and ultimately even improve their bottom lines.
Companies readily acknowledge the role that technologies play in their sustainability practices. Yet many do not consider how technologies — especially emerging energy-intensive ones like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and data ciphering — increasingly are contributing to carbon emissions. Digital assets such as corporate applications, end user devices, and servers and other infrastructure are expected to produce 14% of global emissions by 2040, up from 2% to 3% today, according to the European Commission. To put that in greater context, road transport contributed about 28% of CO2 emissions in 2021 according to Oliver Wyman analysis.
While CIOs certainly recognize the importance of green IT implementation, it is usually only a lever they use to justify new projects to management or shareholders, rather than a main priority. Often they are focused on how IT can support the larger organization’s carbon-reduction objectives, unaware of the need for IT itself to become more sustainable.
There simply aren’t any off-the-shelf tools available that can quantify, at once and with the necessary level of detail and accuracy, all the emissions from numerous servers each running multiple applications, as well as from employees’ devices. But it is possible to pinpoint the potentially largest emissions sources, make some simple measurements, and over time partner with providers and suppliers to expand the scope and improve accuracy.
Other moves also can help with setting a path to greater sustainability. A company can set up a task force that includes both enterprise IT and corporate sustainability representatives, and engage cloud, data center, and other third-party service providers to begin finding solutions. In addition, part of the CIO’s agenda should be to continually implement new actions aimed at mitigating the digital carbon footprint.
Companies need to start factoring IT’s carbon footprint into their sustainability plans. To do so, they will have to measure it. That’s no small task given all the sources of carbon in the tech stack
A holistic plan
While crucial on their own, these steps need to be part of a broader shift in philosophy across the enterprise. Typically, IT sustainability strategy covers hardware and operations but does not fully include measures on applications and development. Real improvement requires a more holistic approach, pushed by sustainability managers and prioritized by CIOs to a far greater degree.
An effective course of action comprises a wide range of policies. When building applications, for example, developers should consider sustainability to be among the list of non-functional design requirements. Similarly, environmental considerations must go into third-party software selections along with other conventional factors.
Data centers have myriad components for optimization, including deploying carbon-aware load balancing, reducing emissions for batch workloads, using environmentally friendly energy sources, and decommissioning low-usage assets. That’s also the case when it comes to user computing: Compare the impact on energy consumption made by browsers, security apps and other software options, and create awareness about how to use devices in the most eco-friendly ways possible.
Along with these policies it’s important to create a complementary list of key performance indicators (KPIs), basing specific ambitions on an assessment of the maturity of the company’s green IT capabilities. A primary category is strategy and planning; here the aim is to track big-picture goals such as the percentage of the company’s tech investments that are sustainable, and even the overall percentage reduction in IT carbon footprint. For creation of new projects, metrics might include the percentage that adopt green requirements.
Organizations will also need to monitor performance around certain environmental aspects related to running the IT infrastructure. Some examples are the amount of reduction in energy consumption, the increase in use of green energy, and the number of campaigns to raise employees’ awareness of green IT efforts. Additional KPIs include the percentage of suppliers selected based on their environmental credentials, as well as the volume of hardware devices the company recycles or refurbishes.
The business case for green IT
Obviously this is a lot for any business to take on. So rather than launching a full operational transformation, it would be wise to start small: Focus on a specific dimension such as infrastructure, procurement, or software development, and scale from there.
Implemented properly, green initiatives can serve as a catalyst for all manner of IT improvements. This is a chance to simplify and modernize. Software that has been re-platformed and that has reduced functionalities, for instance, is greener. Architecture can evolve. Efficiency can increase.
Further, the new emphasis on sustainability by design will help CIOs create a more compelling story of digital transformation for the entire enterprise, the board, and external stakeholders. Traditionally it has not been easy to get organizational buy-in for such initiatives but reducing IT emissions means a reduction in energy consumption and by extension a reduction in costs.
Moreover, companies embracing green IT and optimizing their digital carbon footprint can achieve a higher ESG ranking and therefore a higher return for the shareholders. So green IT is not just a useful talking point, and it’s not just a boon for the environment. It’s good for business, too.