ESG for IT: How CIOs can drive environmental sustainability

Sustainability as a business initiative has rocketed up the priority list as investors, consumers and legislators demand accountability from businesses. Here's how IT can help.

CIOs and IT leaders can add "save the Earth from global warming" to their to-do lists.

As pressure mounts to address the climate crisis, more stakeholders are demanding that companies make environmental sustainability a priority. CIOs and IT leaders have important roles to play. They can guide their teams toward greener computing practices, help other departments understand the effects of technology on the environment and support more sustainable business approaches.

Taking a triple-bottom-line approach that benefits profit, people and the planet can become a competitive advantage.

Why CIOs need to focus on sustainability

The world is already witnessing the effects of the climate crisis in the form of more and extended droughts, hurricanes, floods and fires. If greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue their current trajectory, the world will become unlivable in the not-too-distant future. Concerned stakeholders are taking action, and President Biden signed a massive climate bill into law this month.

The IT sector is a contributor to carbon emissions, but it can also help solve environmental issues, said Kathryn Guarini, CIO at IBM. With more demands from external forces, IT leaders can't ignore climate issues, even if they weren't top of mind until recently.

Here are some ways to make progress.

1-Minute Overview: How Should You Get Started with Environmental Sustainability?

Understand your employer's sustainability maturity

More companies are focusing on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, and IT leaders need to understand which environmental priorities their company's board and CEO are emphasizing.

A materiality assessment is critical for real progress, said Simon Mingay, a research vice president at Gartner. That assessment shows which ESG issues a company will prioritize and to what extent. For instance, most organizations will need to address GHG emissions, but issues such as reducing the use of plastic packaging may vary depending on the industry.

In light of those priorities, focusing on these three questions can be helpful, according to Mingay:

  • What does IT need to change so it becomes more sustainable?
  • How can CIOs apply IT to the business to help the organization become more sustainable?
  • How does the business and IT ensure ongoing resilience in the face of climate change and prevent disruptions to services?

IT already focuses on initiatives, such as business process transformation, that can also improve environmental sustainability. And sustainability objectives, such as IT footprint management and tech recycling efforts, can be a business advantage.

IT can actually bring innovation and help companies solve their broader sustainability challenge.
Kathryn GuariniCIO at IBM

"IT can actually bring innovation and help companies solve their broader sustainability challenge because we have an opportunity to have data and insights and drive optimization," Guarini said.

Focus on collaboration

Climate action requires collaboration across the public and private sectors, and across and within businesses.

Technology leaders need to partner with colleagues in other organizations to build community and share best practices around sustainability, said Kath Marston, executive director of SustainableIT.org, a nonprofit in Redwood City, Calif., that focuses on education for tech pros.

Institutions that are newer to sustainability can learn from others that might be savvier, she said.

The need for IT leaders to partner across their own organization is also key.

"There is no member of the team that does not have a role," Mingay said. "You've got your risk compliance folks … you've got production, manufacturing, operations, HR -- everybody has an angle on this."

Learn how tech contributes to GHG emissions

Technology has the potential to be both helpful and harmful to the environment, so it's critical that CIOs understand the complexities. Only then can they determine the tangible actions they need to take and which measurements they need to conduct.

"Every company has now become a tech company, and the CIO is perfectly centered to drive the agenda, especially if there's not already a chief sustainability officer," said Bryan Muehlberger, CIO of apparel brand Vuori, based in Carlsbad, Calif.

hidden ecosystem of tech product waste
Don't overlook the carbon emissions and environmental waste of technology.

IT's contribution to global GHG emissions ranges from 2.1% to 3.9%, according to the authors of a Sept. 2021 article in Patterns. Moreover, carbon pledges in the IT sector aren't ambitious enough to meet climate targets, nor is there enough focus on enforcing those pledges.

As society relies more heavily on digitalization, this issue becomes more critical.

For example, direct energy consumption of IT servers, terminals, networks and other information communication technology (ICT) is increasing by 9% each year, according to a 2019 report by the Shift Project, a Paris-based carbon transition think tank.

"The digital transition, as it is currently implemented, [contributes] to global warming more than it helps [in] preventing it," according to the Shift Project.

IT's GHG emissions largely come from data center cooling requirements, as well as the electronic waste associated with manufacturing operations and device disposal.

"We will need to acknowledge the fact that using any computing-intensive technology will generate carbon emissions," said Abhijit Sunil, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Measure IT's carbon footprint

As more attention falls on carbon accounting, CIOs and IT leaders need to familiarize themselves with the frameworks and organizations that focus on climate action. Measuring an organization's GHG emissions is one of the most critical areas to improve sustainability.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol is a widely used emissions reporting classification system. It outlines three scopes of direct and indirect emissions:

  • Scope 1 includes direct GHG emissions;
  • Scope 2 includes indirect GHG emissions from purchased energy; and
  • Scope 3 includes a wide array of indirect GHG emissions from up and down the value chain.

Don't automatically equate the cloud with green IT

"Move to the cloud" is the oft-repeated instruction in the greening IT discussion, but the cloud doesn't magically eradicate the environmental effects of IT and vendors' claims of net zero aren't what they seem.

The cloud relies on data centers, which use water and electricity. For example, in 2019 Google requested more than 2.3 billion gallons of water for data centers in three states, according to an article in Time magazine.

Data centers also generate massive amounts of e-waste and noise.

"In a data center, you enter the server room, you feel the heat, you hear the fans," said Matt Buchner, senior director of cloud solution architecture at NTT Data Services, an IT service management company based in Plano, Texas.

Many industry watchers say cloud giants rely too heavily on offsets -- a highly problematic practice -- and aren't transparent or granular with their carbon reporting. IT leaders must explore how they manage their data center and network services consumption.

Using the cloud in the right way can help businesses improve sustainability, said Buchner, but organizations shouldn't take an out-of-sight, out-mind-approach.

Understand that no technology is a panacea

As the move to apply emerging technologies to environmental problems gains traction, CIOs and other IT leaders need to be on high alert for oversimplification and greenwashing.

For instance, some marketers present power-hungry blockchain technology as a sustainability tool. Similarly, use cases are emerging for digital twins -- in concert with IoT sensors, edge computing, and AI and machine learning -- to help simulate large machinery energy consumption and minimize waste. But leaders must weigh the material environmental effects of these technologies against their potential energy savings.

"Training several large AI models can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car," according to a 2022 Forrester paper co-authored by Sunil.

Leaders need to consider each tech use case individually, and ask hard questions about any investment, Sunil said.

"Can we achieve the same kind of benefit another way?" he asked.

Include easy gains

Many green computing practices -- from greener software development to data center design -- are complex. But CIOs shouldn't overlook simpler ways to address sustainability.

For example, plugged-in electronics continue to draw power even when not in use, so employees could unplug idle devices when working from home or at the office. In the U.S. residential sector, that consumption contributes to nearly 1 billion tons of GHG emissions, according to a 2015 paper from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

steps to reduce e-waste
Understanding how to reduce e-waste is a critical step in the IT sustainability journey.

The "reduce, reuse, recycle" slogan can be helpful inspiration, too.

Muehlberger's team at his former company accumulated a stockpile of laptops and other devices. Focusing on reuse, they partnered with a nonprofit that redeploys old tech to lower-income populations.

Responsibly reusing or recycling everything from laptops and mobile devices to server systems is critical, Guarini said.

The "reduce" aspect might be the biggest challenge. A major share of technology's carbon emissions happens during manufacturing, and the marketing around and desire for constant upgrades is intense. Employees might not want to work with aging tech or take time to unplug devices not in use, so IT teams need to help them understand how these actions contribute to business and climate goals.

Don't ignore eco-anxiety

It's important to acknowledge just how big and scary climate change is -- and feels -- as more people focus on it, especially since mental health issues have skyrocketed in the last few years.

More than 50% of people globally ages 16 to 25 reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty over climate change, according to a 2021 study published in The Lancet. More than 45% of respondents said these feelings negatively affect their daily life and functioning.

In other words, climate anxiety is real.

We are undergoing the biggest shift humanity has ever gone through.
Anne Therese GennariFounder, The Climate Optimist

"We are undergoing the biggest shift humanity has ever gone through," said Anne Therese Gennari, founder of The Climate Optimist and a consultant who works with HR managers to positively shift climate conversations. "We don't ever talk about how to emotionally deal with that."

Self-care is key, as is taking breaks from climate-focused work to find balance, Gennari said. Focusing on the big picture can be helpful to understand sustainability issues, but it can also become overwhelming.

"That's where we need to come back to, 'OK, I can't change the world. No one can,'" Gennari said. "But I can change my world, and if I change my world, I'm going to start changing the world around me.'"

Next Steps

IT sustainability Think Tank: Understanding the circular economy

5 ESG benefits for businesses

Dig Deeper on CIO strategy

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