Getty Images

Guest Post

Why IT leaders are the emerging champions of sustainability

Enterprise technology has both a negative and positive impact on sustainability. Learn how IT leaders can help reduce the negative effects and amplify the positive ones.

IT leaders and their teams have become core to corporate sustainability missions.

Corporations have a big role in climate action. At the same time, leaders have recently made strides in addressing transparency, measurement and reducing the carbon footprint across the scope of organizations' activities, including in digital infrastructure and supply chain.

This effort to address the environmental costs of technology is critical. Here are some findings that illustrate some of the urgency:

  • Data center capacity has increased worldwide between 2010 and 2018 while compute instances have increased by 6.5 times, according to "The state of environmental sustainability in the Fortune Global 200, 2022," a Forrester report published in March.
  • In 2021, data center energy consumption was approximately 0.9% to 1.3% of global final electricity demand, and data transmission networks consumed 1.1% to 1.4% of global electricity use, according to the IEA's September 2022 tracking report, "Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks."
  • In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste -- everything from discarded mobile phones to laptops to IT hardware, according to "The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential," a collaborative 2020 report published by United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and others.

The data surrounding IT's carbon footprint is clear. It's now up to IT leaders to drive and support sustainability efforts, which can be accomplished in several ways.

First, IT leaders can take charge of assessing and implementing the right environmental monitoring software tools for their organizations. This helps to both automate sustainability reporting and save costs. Sustainability initiatives also require the help of several experts and IT leaders who are well poised to understand the capabilities that professional services providers offer in the sustainability space.

Abhijit Sunil, analyst, Forrester ResearchAbhijit Sunil

Second, IT leaders can assess emerging technologies and their impact, since emerging technologies can play a dual role in an organization's sustainability efforts. While technologies including AI, machine learning, edge computing and others can have beneficial use cases, they can also add to the carbon footprint of an organization.

Lastly, IT leaders can assist with the data management of internal IT efforts. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics can be vast, and data management can be critical, especially in industries such as financial services. IT teams can help ensure a single source of truth for ESG data -- whether it's for reporting purposes or for decision-making regarding investments.

How IT leaders lower their organizations' IT carbon footprint

IT's average contribution to an organization's carbon footprint varies by industry but is in double digits across the board, according to "The state of IT environmental sustainability, 2023" report. In particular, IT contributes significantly to scope 1 and scope 2 emissions in the technology (41%) and financial services (46%) industries. Both industries rely heavily on technology for their operations. The IT carbon footprint may also vary widely in some industries between companies, depending on both the level of digitization and factors such as cloud adoption.

Consequently, IT leaders' influence and contribution toward reducing the carbon footprint of organizations is also increasing. Several core areas exist within organizations where IT leaders can seek to decarbonize the digital stack. These include the following:

  • Making the data center more sustainable. Water management, carbon usage effectiveness calculation, energy management and infrastructure recycling are a few key initiatives within the data center. But finding the right refresh cycles for infrastructure is not an easy problem to solve. IT teams will need to answer the following question: Is it better to upgrade at any given point in time versus continuing to use existing equipment? Tech leaders must consider various metrics, including the embodied carbon during manufacturing and supply chain emissions, when making these types of decisions.
  • Managing carbon emissions from end-user devices and IT in the workplace. Initiatives that can help here include making sure that e-waste is managed responsibly through an asset decommissioning partner and that procurement best practices are enforced through strong supplier codes of conduct. Another is exploring strategies to elongate the lifespan of devices and, with that, the embodied carbon footprint of devices to a longer period of time. Using the correct metrics and calculating the right refresh cycles for infrastructure can have significant impact in both optimizing good user experience and balancing an organization's carbon footprint.
  • Making application development and the software ecosystem more sustainable. Sustainability in the software stack of an organization remains among the hardest problems to solve for IT leaders. And standards and metrics are still evolving. Organizations like the Green Software Foundation and have been helping document best practices as well as set standards. Measures such as reducing data duplication and calculating software carbon intensity are good places to start in reducing the carbon footprint of applications.
Being greener therefore often leads to cost optimization -- a key impact that the IT leader can bring to any organization.

To date, 61% of Fortune Global 200 companies have named a sustainability leader to help manage their organization's sustainability strategy, according to "The state of environmental sustainability in the fortune EMEA50, 2023," a Forrester report published in January.

As a result, IT leaders should separately consider working closely with core sustainability leadership as well as exploring strategies that infuse sustainability into every aspect of product development, procurement and digital transformation.

The challenges of measuring an organization's IT carbon footprint

While IT leaders can find ways to lower their organizations' IT carbon footprint, several challenges remain when it comes to properly measuring this.

One challenge is calculating the right metrics. While it's encouraging that IT vendors -- from hyperscale public cloud vendors to chipmakers -- are being more transparent about carbon footprints, metrics and standards are still evolving. Additionally, most reporting standards require a framework such as scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 emissions calculation. For an IT leader who works with multiple vendors, it can be challenging to have an apples-to-apples comparison of data that these vendors provide and, even more so, to account for data that may be absent.

Sustainability is synonymous with optimization, and in fueling a virtuous cycle, optimization ultimately leads to sustainability. Being greener therefore often leads to cost optimization -- a key impact that the IT leader can bring to any organization. As more regulations arise in the ESG space, one thing is certain: The IT leader will have a key role to play in keeping any organization compliant in tandem with these sustainability developments.

About the author
Abhijit is a senior analyst serving enterprise leaders. His research focuses on green IT, technology sustainability strategy, data centers and cloud optimization, emerging technologies and climate action, the sustainability professional services market, environmental reporting and organization, and the ROI and business value of environmental sustainability investments.

Dig Deeper on Sustainability and ESG strategy and leadership

Data Center
Mobile Computing