Sustainability in a Digital World: how to reduce your tech carbon footprint
Explore essential steps for reducing tech carbon footprint in the public sector with our blog on sustainable digital practices.
To avert catastrophic impacts to human life and health, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. The UK Government therefore aims to decarbonise the entire UK economy by 2050, including ‘hard-to-abate sectors’ (e.g. steel, cement), meaning ‘easier-to-abate’ sectors must decarbonise well before 2050. In the face of an ever-shifting political environment, public services remain at the heart of the UK’s response to the climate crisis.
Digital technology has huge potential to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy, but also risks becoming an increasing source of emissions in the future; according to the European Commission, digital technologies account for 8-10% of energy consumption, and 2-4% of greenhouse gas emissions across Europe. It is therefore vital to consider technology and sustainability side by side to ensure the journey towards a digital future accelerates rather than compromises the transition to net zero.
The first step for public sector organisations is to address the environmental footprint of the technology they use. This includes the carbon emissions, water use, and material use associated with both their hardware and software. Some of these environmental impacts may feel difficult to address - for example, reducing how much water is used within your cloud data centre is the responsibility of the supplier. However, there are plenty of opportunities for public sector organisations to make more sustainable technology choices. We’ve identified three main areas where you can make a difference.
Factoring in sustainability when choosing your supplier
When choosing where and how to store your data, reviewing the environmental impact in terms of carbon emissions, water use, and material use isn’t feasible. That being said, you can incorporate sustainability into your procurement processes by understanding what suppliers are doing to reduce their footprint in these three areas. For example, Google has used DeepMind AI’s machine learning system to reduce the amount of energy used for cooling their servers in the data centre environment by 40%, while Amazon Web Services announced last year that it will deliver more water to communities than it uses, hence becoming water positive, by 2030.
Some useful things to look out for when choosing your supplier include:
- Whether they have any standard credentials (e.g. B Corp, Ecovadis Gold, CDP A or B grade)
- Whether they can share their carbon reduction plan, and if so, looking in particular at their progress over the past few years, and their carbon intensity per £ turnover/profit
- Whether they offset their emissions, and if so, how - there is increasing evidence that emissions reductions through offset projects, such as investing in clean cookstoves or tree planting, are unreliable.
- What their targets are - are they aiming for net zero or even carbon negative? Checking whether their targets are SBTi verified (science-based targets) is also a good way of ensuring that a company’s targets are clearly defined
As part of our support to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) on their Environmental Sustainability Plan, we worked with them to produce a guide into how the NMC could build environmental sustainability considerations into its procurement processes. This enables them to move towards their target of ensuring 80% of their spend by 2030 is with suppliers with public net zero commitments for 2040 as a minimum. This shows that while we don’t have direct control over a supplier’s sustainability targets, factoring in sustainability in your procurement processes is an important action to take, and will support your organisation to move towards net zero. Pressures from downstream in supply chains is also a powerful motivator for suppliers to take positive action on their emissions directly.
Managing your existing suppliers or procured services
In addition to looking at new suppliers, another powerful lever for reducing the footprint of digital services is through managing your existing procured services. The first step for this is to understand the emissions profile (including the supply chain) of the services you already procure. Bigger suppliers, such as the big 3 cloud providers (Google, Microsoft Azure, AWS), will have a tool that lets you estimate the emissions of your service.
You may need to engage directly with smaller suppliers to fully understand the emissions involved in using their products - this has its own benefits, such as strengthening relationships and potentially prompting direct action by those suppliers.
Once you have an understanding of where the biggest emissions are, you can prioritise areas that you want to change. Moving digital services or data storage from on-premise to the cloud can cut energy consumption by 87%, or working with a supplier to revisit your data architecture to identify points of congestion can make running a query on the cloud more efficient.
Another way is to optimise your workload - reducing how much cloud storage and data processing you need. For example, by considering whether all your data needs to be available to you all the time, or whether you can store any in a higher mechanism. It is best practice to optimise your workload or review your architecture regularly, and reducing the amount of storage you need should also result in considerable cost savings.
Taking action within your own team and organisation
As well as looking outwards at how you can reduce your environmental impact through procurement and supplier engagement, there are several steps you can take within your own organisation. This might include:
- Measuring emissions of a project through supplier tools or your own carbon tracker to identify the largest emissions sources and creating a plan to reduce these (e.g. driving to a site versus getting the train)
- Digitising where possible - including removing duplication of services or tasks within the organisation, and reusing or recycling technology where possible (e.g. at The PSC old laptops are sent to Catbytes to be reused and recycled)
- Implementing lean digital design by, for example: considering the emissions of potential bought services compared to bespoke development; streamlining user journeys for a better user experience and resource efficiency; and minimising the quantity of data stored, ensuring deletion of data at the end of useful life
Bridging the gap between sustainability and digital
Efforts to make digital sustainable, and increase sustainability through digital innovation, have been challenged by siloed thinking between the two areas. We have found that establishing joint working between sustainability and digital teams, alongside inter-team upskilling and engaged organisational leaders, bridges the gap between sustainability and digital to ensure the success of sustainable digital initiatives.
To further mature digital sustainability within your team or organisation, we recommend gaining buy-in from organisational leaders, including making digital a priority area within your environmental sustainability plan, developing internal best practice and sharing success stories. A best-practice team:
- Measures the carbon impact of services, options and changes, to guide future decisions and strengthen the evidence for action
- Embeds sustainability into existing processes rather than building separate layers of governance
- Continues the sustainability conversation with partners, staff, service users and the public, to leverage their influence
Discover how our sustainability-focused services can drive your organisation towards a more sustainable future. The PSC exists to make public services brilliant. We work with our clients, using data science and user-centred-design to co-create new digital services, ensuring they deliver strong financial results, are in harmony with teams and working practices, and include everyone. If you're looking to implement sustainable practices, we're here to help. Contact us for more information about our services and how we can partner with you on your sustainability journey.
Author Aoife Clark
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