Tech for sustainability: What IT and developers can do
With the tech industry under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, developers and IT ops have an essential role to play in sustainability initiatives.
Digital transformations and the rise of remote work have made technology essential to almost every organization's operations. But as research emerges on tech's environmental impacts, the digital sector's role in the climate crisis has come under increasing scrutiny.
Information and communications technology currently account for nearly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 study. And IT's carbon footprint is growing -- projections suggest that percentage could exceed 14% by 2040.
But technology and tech workers are also essential to any sustainability strategy. By building more efficient software and putting their technical skills to work for climate initiatives, developers and IT ops can reduce their organization's carbon footprint and contribute to large-scale change.
Understanding technology's effects on the environment
Determining how an application or website affects the environment is complex. Accurately calculating greenhouse gas emissions requires extensive data, including how much electricity an app consumes, the source of that electricity and the hardware used in its underlying IT infrastructure.
The Green Software Foundation, a climate-focused nonprofit under the Linux Foundation, highlights three areas as key to understanding software emissions:
- Energy efficiency. Energy-efficient software consumes as little electricity as possible -- for example, running workloads on as few servers as possible and reducing use of energy-intensive software libraries.
- Hardware efficiency. Using hardware efficiently requires reducing carbon emissions associated with creating and discarding devices. An IT ops team, for example, could promote hardware efficiency by utilizing servers at full capacity whenever possible.
- Carbon awareness. Carbon-aware IT aligns workloads with changes in carbon intensity, or how much carbon is emitted per unit of electricity. For example, a data scientist might choose to train a computationally intensive machine learning model in a cloud region where electricity is cleaner.
The challenges of evaluating IT emissions
Each of these factors can be technically difficult to calculate. Further complicating the situation, green software is a nascent field, so best practices remain uncertain.
"This is still an area where research and practice is evolving," said web sustainability consultant Fershad Irani. "We're still understanding how things work. I'm still understanding how things work, and I do this now almost every day."
As part of his work with independent nonprofit The Green Web Foundation, Irani contributes code to the open source library CO2.js, which estimates the carbon emissions of an application or website in terms of each byte of data it moves over the internet. This is currently the most common way of calculating digital carbon emissions, Irani said. But that could change as new research emerges on the role of networks, data centers and devices.
To accurately calculate emissions, IT practitioners also need open and accurate data -- an area where digital sustainability currently falls short. To get real-time data on carbon emissions, developers might need to pay for access to an API. Even when data is available, it sometimes isn't sufficiently detailed.
Cloud providers often provide emissions or energy use data in aggregate for an entire country or region. For areas that are home to multiple data centers, this limits the data's usefulness. Each data center could be connected to a different power grid with its own unique mix of energy sources -- some clean, some not.
How IT and developers can promote sustainability
The problem can seem overwhelming, but tech workers of all kinds have important roles to play in sustainability initiatives.
Despite the aforementioned challenges, IT ops teams today can track and analyze climate-related metrics to an unprecedented extent thanks to advances in observability and automation. Emissions data calculated with CO2.js, for example, can be incorporated into existing internal monitoring tools and dashboards.
As sustainability data is gathered at a larger scale and integrated into existing monitoring and observability pipelines, it becomes less distanced from other elements of IT operations. Instead of viewing sustainability as an optional add-on, analyzing climate impact becomes a normal component of tech decision-making.
"It's just another data element to operational metrics that you collect," said Jon Brown, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group who researches IT ops and sustainability. "And the ultimate benefit will be having sustainability be part of the decision matrix for operations all the time."
The power of green defaults
At the individual level, there are many ways for tech workers to make more sustainable choices in their daily work. Some of these are general changes that anyone can make, such as choosing lower-emissions options for business travel and taking steps to reduce personal energy use in the office.
Fershad IraniWeb sustainability consultant
Others are more specific to those in technical roles. "Start with your own little corner of the internet or software world," Irani said. "What can you do to make the things that you control greener?"
Setting greener defaults at the outset can pay dividends over the long term. For example, a developer building a mobile app could implement a rule to replace autoplaying videos with still images when users are connected to 4G networks, which are less efficient than Wi-Fi.
Likewise, when spinning up a new project, a DevOps team could choose to use containers and container orchestrators like Kubernetes. Containerized apps typically require fewer servers and have an overall smaller networking and storage infrastructure, all of which can reduce emissions.
Because containerized cloud deployments offer autoscaling and flexibility, they also help IT teams match their software's energy use to demand. Rather than running everything all the time, organizations can use only what they need. Less energy is needed to power and cool hardware, and existing resources are used more efficiently.
Getting the business on board with tech sustainability efforts
By making software and websites more sustainable, IT ops and developers can reduce their organization's carbon footprint and inspire others in similar roles to do the same, within the organization and beyond.
"From a developer's perspective, I would say: Don't discount the amount of leverage you've got," Irani said.
To get organizations on board, it's often important to highlight how making tech more sustainable can save money and improve performance. In a 2022 study, Yale researchers found that focusing on cost savings was the most effective way to shift beliefs about the benefits of renewable energy.
Fortunately, pursuing sustainability isn't at odds with tightening budgets. Popular methodologies like FinOps aim to cut costs through promoting accountability and efficiency in resource use, but reducing sprawl and waste also typically means lower emissions.
"A lot of the time, the sustainable option is the cheaper option," Irani said. "You're not running 24/7 compute. You might be running only at times of peak load, and then you might turn off a few servers, so you save those costs."
Governance and compliance can be another effective point to highlight. As policy changes spur organizations to respond to new and impending climate regulations, IT and developers can make the case that thinking about sustainability is no longer optional.
Just as regulations and industry standards have made cybersecurity nonnegotiable, sustainability reporting requirements will push organizations to account for their emissions. Tech professionals can present a proactive stance on sustainability as a way for their organization to get ahead.
What to do if your organization isn't receptive
Although the conversation around tech's climate impact is expanding, it can still be tough for those in technical roles to get business buy-in for sustainability initiatives.
In Enterprise Strategy Group's recent research, Brown said, most IT practitioners reported caring personally about environmental issues. But they didn't always feel that their employers shared this commitment. "Categorically, they all rated the organization's commitment lower than their own," he said.
This is in line with Irani's experiences as a developer. "No one comes asking for a sustainable website," he said, though noting it's still possible to weave sustainability into existing projects.
That conflict between professional and personal identities can be difficult to navigate. "You're pretending to be somebody that you're not," Brown said. "Your work is not meeting your personal ideals."
Those facing pushback at work can still contribute their technical skills to open source projects, such as the CO2.js library or Cloud Carbon Footprint, a tool for measuring and monitoring cloud carbon emissions. Many other open source projects in need of contributors are cataloged in the Open Sustainable Technology curated list.
Even small commits to an open source project can be significant. If an open source tool is used by hundreds or thousands of people each day, a line of code that cuts one gram of CO2 from the software's emissions will greatly reduce its long-term environmental impact.
Fighting climate fatigue and building community
What's the most important thing that tech workers who want to promote sustainability in their daily work can do? "Just starting the conversation, if there isn't a conversation being had," Irani said.
Advocating for an emerging issue is often daunting. But broaching the topic of sustainability can give tech professionals a sense of who else in the organization is thinking about climate. Whether with a direct manager, other DevOps team members or a sustainability working group, building community is crucial to both practical success and avoiding burnout.
For tech workers looking to get involved in sustainability, organizations like ClimateAction.tech and the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance offer spaces to learn and collaborate with others. Groups with local or regional chapters can connect individuals with other like-minded tech professionals in their community.
In addition, IT skills are in demand for sustainability projects more broadly. Groups like the Climate Foundation aren't specifically focused on tech but welcome volunteers looking to contribute technical expertise. Actions like helping a local climate group build or host their website can put tech knowledge to use in service of sustainability.
While improving the sustainability of one app or website might not feel significant in the grand scheme of things, it's the network effect that matters. If many individuals make these changes and then share their experiences, Irani says, the outcomes of that collective action can be massive.
"In the end, we are not going to get anywhere if we don't do it together," Irani said. "This is not something that just is going to impact one person or one group. And so we do all need to chip in as much as we can."
Enterprise Strategy Group is a division of TechTarget.
6 ways to build a green IT culture
AI and climate change: The mixed impact of machine learning
15 sustainability management software providers to consider
Why IT leaders are the emerging champions of sustainability