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Good sustainability strategy balances tech, use cases

During Forrester Research's Technology and Innovation Forum, experts said IT leaders should identify use cases for technology to advance a company's sustainability strategy.

Technology isn't always the answer when it comes to reducing a company's carbon footprint, which is why IT leaders must be judicious in using new and emerging technologies as part of sustainability strategies.

That's according to Abhijit Sunil, senior analyst at Forrester Research, who said information and communication technology's contribution to an organization's carbon footprint is "substantial and rising." Sunil spoke on a panel during Forrester Research's Technology and Innovation Forum on Sept. 30.

Emerging technologies such as blockchain, edge computing and data centers consume high amounts of energy, Sunil said. He noted that data centers consumed 1% of total global electricity demand in 2020.

That's why it's crucial for IT leaders to consider specific use cases for emerging technologies when it comes to a company's plan to reduce its carbon emissions, he said.

"The use of emerging technologies for sustainability really verges on the right use case and the right scale," Sunil said. "Thinking about that is the real power of the technology leader and how emerging technologies will be either beneficial or risky for an organization's sustainability journey."

Focusing on a sustainability strategy

Internal actions on the sustainability roadmap begin with procurement, including green energy and energy-efficient hardware. Companies can then optimize internal operations, including data centers and the value chain, which Sunil said is often where emerging technologies come in.

Blockchain technologies can help measure and monitor supply chain emissions, ensuring data accuracy through smart contracts that authenticate real-time data on carbon emissions. Additionally, IoT technologies and edge computing optimize transportation and logistics operations.

Yet companies must tread carefully because technologies like IoT and blockchain generate their own carbon footprint, he said. Blockchain consumed 0.3% of the global electricity demand in 2020, he noted.

The use of emerging technologies for sustainability really verges on the right use case and the right scale.
Abhijit SunilSenior analyst, Forrester Research

Sukumaran Nair, associate provost for research at Southern Methodist University, said using blockchain for managing sustainability efforts can often eliminate benefits gained due to its high energy consumption. Nair spoke on the panel with Sunil.

Yet technologies like data centers, blockchain and edge computing, which Nair described as "complementary," shouldn't be sidelined because of their potential to create additional carbon footprint. He said it's up to business leaders to balance the technologies' usage as part of the company's carbon reduction effort.

"That's where innovation has to come in," Nair said.

Addressing carbon footprints with technology

It comes down to being able to measure the negative and positive impacts of the information and communications technologies and minimizing the negative impacts, said panelist Bhushan Joshi, head of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson North America. Ericsson is a multinational provider of telecommunications technologies.

Joshi said Ericsson has set goals to reach net-zero carbon emissions for its 5G technology portfolio by 2040. He said the company also plans to assess individual sites to see which areas can be made "smart sites" to improve energy consumption.

Additionally, using technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning helps the company find patterns for improving energy efficiency as networks get "more and more complex," he said.

"Running them efficiently is going to require these technologies," Joshi said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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