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Sustainable IT efforts grow, but challenges remain

As cloud computing and digital reliance grow, so too does the need to focus on sustainability. Here's a look at some of the issues, as well as some of the progress.

For Asim Hussain, cloth diapers helped spark his IT sustainability journey.

Hussain had always cared about the environment, taking actions in line with that such as recycling, he said. But when he and his wife opted to use cloth-based diapers for their new son -- with all that entailed -- his awareness of environmental impacts grew, something he realized had been missing in his software development work.

"At no point had I or anybody else ever mentioned in any meeting, 'Hey, how do the choices we're making impact the environment?'" he said.

That question set him off on a new path, one that is more focused on the role of IT in sustainability. Today Hussain is executive director and chairperson of the Green Software Foundation, a nonprofit focused on sustainable software development. 

Environmental awareness is growing in IT as it is elsewhere.

"We've seen this massive explosion of digitalization, and people are starting to realize the impact of IT," said Niklas Sundberg, chief digital officer at Küehne+Nagel and author of Sustainable IT Playbook for Technology Leaders.

Digital technology and IT have become critical facets of the larger sustainability conversation due to their complex roles, both as tools to assist in the climate crisis as well as things to monitor and improve due to their negative impact.

IT sustainability terms defined

As in many arenas, sustainability terms mean different things depending on who is speaking. But there are some general associations.

Two of the most common terms are sustainability and ESG, the latter of which stands for environmental, social and governance. In broad strokes, sustainability means addressing the needs of today without compromising the future. It evokes a holistic and humane approach to environmental and social issues. Sustainability also has a close tie with the UN's 17 sustainable development goals, which are a means of protecting the planet and improving people's well-being across the globe.

ESG is an umbrella reporting framework that helps investors and outside parties assess an organization's environmental, social and governance activities and impacts. In the last few years, ESG and sustainability have often been used synonymously, but the former is more specific, referring to structured frameworks and reporting, driven by legislation and shareholder demands.

The terms green IT, sustainable IT and sustainable computing are more in the technology professional's purview. All three are umbrella terms that broadly mean creating, using and disposing of IT in responsible and environmentally sound ways. While "green" focuses on environmental impacts, "sustainable" broadens to include societal impacts.

For example, Sundberg considers sustainable IT to include three pillars: sustainability in IT, which focuses on the assets, devices and energy a company uses; sustainability by IT, which refers to go-to-market products and services and using innovation to create sustainability in business; and IT for society, which refers to using technology for the broader good and avoiding harm, such as toxic chemicals and child labor in the supply chain.

The prevalence of these terms points to a major uptick in attention, from more people searching climate-related terms, to an exponential rise in webinars about business sustainability, to more research.

Sundberg has noticed the change in the conversation around environmental issues.

Attention to green IT was largely absent until recent years, he said. "Suddenly many more people are talking about it," he said.

The need to develop software in a more sustainable way is also receiving more attention.

Speaking of his initial efforts in sustainability and technology, Hussain said. "[About five years ago] we would get excited about one article a year on green software … we'd be sharing it everywhere." Now there are podcasts dedicated to software sustainability issues, more media conversation and simply more people focused on the issue, he said.

Indeed, thanks to numerous drivers -- consumer pressure, legislative action, employee concern, board and investor demand -- more people are scrutinizing society's impact on the climate, including technology's role. That's critical since digital consumption is only set to rise.

Business technology's impact on sustainability

Since 2010, global internet traffic has grown twenty-fold and the number of internet users has doubled, according to the International Energy Agency. Moreover, between 2017 and 2021, the combined electricity consumption of Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft more than doubled.

We've seen this massive explosion of digitalization, and people are starting to realize the impact of IT.
Niklas Sundberg, chief digital officer, Küehne+Nagel

And although the increase in data center electricity consumption varies wildly, what's clear is that the number is growing, as is society's reliance on technology. But this comes at a cost.

Due to this greater use of IT servers, terminals, networks and other aspects of information communication technology (ICT), the sector's direct energy consumption 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, [adds] to global warming more than it helps [prevent] it," the report said.

In fact, enterprise tech creates about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a September 2022 McKinsey & Company report "The green IT revolution: A blueprint for CIOs to combat climate change."

Although that may seem like a small number, it's on par with the U.K.'s total carbon footprint, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.

Data centers -- the backbone of cloud computing and modern digital-dependent life -- are energy hogs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, they can use 100 to 200 times the electricity that a commercial office building space does.

They also depend on massive amounts of water for cooling. For example, a typical Google data center consumed approximately 450,000 gallons of water per day, according to figures released by the company in late 2022.

Moreover, AI is already driving up water use, with ChatGPT a particularly thirsty form.

A full 17 ounces of fresh water are used to run 20 to 50 queries, according to calculations from Shaolei Ren, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Riverside, and coauthor of the paper "Making AI Less 'Thirsty': Uncovering and Addressing the Secret Water Footprint of AI Models. " As an example, training for the GPT-3 AI program in Microsoft's state-of-the-art U.S. data centers consumed about 700,000 liters of freshwater in a couple of weeks. To put that in perspective, that's roughly as much water required to manufacture about 320 Teslas,

Concerns about power grid drains, water supply shortages and other environmental impacts are among the reasons more communities are pushing back against data centers being built in their area, sparking protests in Arizona, as well Uruguay and Chile, among others.

And while the spotlight is on the major vendors when it comes to data centers, Ren has lately been focusing more of his research on multitenant (colocation) data centers, which he said are "the invisible segment" in research and have different sustainability challenges and solutions.

E-waste is another major issue.

The world produces as much as 50 million metric tons of e-waste per year, according to the UN Environment Programme. That's more than the combined weight of all the commercial airliners ever made. Only about 20% of the e-waste is recycled, an amount worth more than $62.5 billion. Business technology is a major source of this discarded tech. Meanwhile, virgin materials for making products from scratch will get harder to come by, Sundberg said.

Among their environmental impacts, tech castoffs also release greenhouse gases.

Enterprise technology emits approximately 350 to 400 megatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases, according to the above mentioned 2022 McKinsey & Company report. Moreover, user device emissions are expected to increase at a CAGR of 12.8% per year.

Corporate and IT sustainability drivers
IT sustainability should be a component of companies' ESG strategies.

Sustainable IT complex, but progress is happening

Making progress in sustainability is a complex undertaking. And that's true in IT as it is in other areas.

Business leaders might not prioritize sustainability, or they only allocate little or no money to sustainability efforts and send contradictory signals. If leaders don't allocate money and dedicate resources to sustainability -- versus adding it as an extra responsibility to people's jobs -- then progress is unlikely, according to many experts.

Employees might already feel overwhelmed with their daily tasks, so adding on climate efforts can feel daunting. Worse, the overload of mostly negative climate talk can make both leaders and workers feel confused about where to start. All these issues make softer skills such as culture creation, communication, change management and education critical.

Ongoing training is key to getting employee support, Itzel Orozco, CEO of Compass 2050, a sustainability advisory firm based in Mexico City, told TechTarget during a BrightTalk webinar (registration required). Moreover, communicating "as a human to another human … with emotions, troubles and tribulations" is critical, she said.

All this puts an emphasis on joining forces with others who have the same concerns, within companies as well as across organizations and sectors.

Hussain's sustainability journey is a perfect example. After his diaper-prompted lightbulb moment while working in the cloud group at Microsoft, he realized that the effect of cloud computing and software on the environment was absent from work conversations.

He began reaching out to others across the industry, joining forces with like-minded people to answer difficult software sustainability questions. That led to becoming a co-organizer of a community called ClimateAction.Tech, and successfully pitching and establishing the green cloud advocacy team at Microsoft.

Understanding the true environmental cost of digital technology and IT is complex. Though IT teams can measure energy use and understand whether they are sourcing with clean or dirty energy, a lot of the broader research relies on projections and assumptions and much of the data needed -- such as how much compute intensity is required for a particular technology type -- is protected by companies, complex to measure, or presents other tricky issues.

In comparison to hardware, software products' carbon emissions and "greenness" are particularly difficult to isolate.

For his part, Hussain continued banding together with like-minded people who shared what they learned with one another and codified principles. The Green Software Foundation run by Hussain includes companies across the technology landscape, which aim to connect people and share tooling and best practices about greener coding practices.

The foundation focuses, in particular, on software carbon efficiency, through energy efficiency, hardware efficiency, and carbon-aware computing, Hussain said. The latter refers to using renewable energy and otherwise preventing negative environmental impact.

The foundation is also working on ways to help promote better metrics for understanding software use, a critical endeavor due to society's increasing reliance on software.

Indeed, software is expected to account for 14% of the world's carbon footprint by 2040, according to the 2018 study "Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations," published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Partnering with others and speaking about sustainability issues has also been critical for Sundberg. Besides his book, which lays out helpful ways for IT to get started on a more sustainable path, he's on the board of, a nonprofit organization steered by technology executives who want to promote sustainability through technology. The organization is working to promote standards and advance education around IT-specific issues.

The challenge ahead

Last year was the hottest year on record and researchers are predicting 2024 will be even hotter. The climate emergency is real, and more technology professionals are realizing that business-as-usual is unacceptable.

Technology is an important tool in helping to address certain environmental issues. For starters, ERP systems and sustainability software are becoming more important in a company's ESG efforts, especially as reporting legislation becomes mandatory. Enterprise software will have an important role in capturing carbon emission data. In addition, AI and other tools are increasingly being touted as "solutions" to supply chain sustainability complexity.

But using these tools in the right way requires that IT teams gain a new awareness on how to decide whether a technology solves the issue -- or simply creates new problems.

Diann Daniel is executive editor, overseeing Sustainability and ESG, as well as other sites within TechTarget Editorial's Enterprise Software and Services Media Group.

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