Climate change: The push to reduce IT's carbon footprint

Climate change: The push to reduce IT's carbon footprint

Data is a major contributor to climate change—and it could be key to reducing IT's carbon footprint. Here's how.

Credit: NicoElNino/Shutterstock

Humans are facing an existential crisis in climate change. We are also facing a crisis of collective action. As a species, we have every reason to slow the rise of global temperatures, but taking steps to cut carbon emissions is generally not in the short-term interest of individuals, companies, or countries. Where does that leave IT organisations?

IT systems all around the world consume ever-increasing amounts of electric power, making them a critical factor in increasing carbon emissions. Many people in the industry are acutely aware of IT's climate impact and want to see it reduced, but minimising IT's carbon footprint will entail a cost that many small businesses and multinational corporations are reluctant to bear.

Curious about what might incentivise a shift to greener tech, I spoke to IT leaders who are pushing back on climate change. I found people working at every level of organisational leadership—from the top down to the bottom up—and pursuing a variety of strategies to reduce carbon consumption in company products and business models.

Data drives climate change—and solutions

When asked what drives IT's carbon emissions, most respondents pointed to data. In particular, the rising popularity of data lakes and the data centers that store them are a huge contributor to the problem. Given the primacy of data for modern businesses, companies that want to reduce their carbon footprint will have to make hard choices.

"Companies would have to stop collecting a lot of (poor) data and storing it," says Chrissy Kidd, SEO manager at Splunk, which helps users sort through massive machine-generated data sets. "They won't do this because they're married to the idea that they are 'data driven' organisations, when most of them are not. We're also living in a data ecosystem, where everything is based on collecting and storing data, even when only an estimated 10% of that data gets 'used' beyond simple storage. Until we have less data to store, seemingly forever, IT companies will continue to emit more carbon than not," she said.

The explosion of storage and its emissions in recent years was driven not only by data's usefulness (real or perceived), but by a fundamental shift in underlying economic factors. "In older models, storage was one of the most expensive components of a system, so we were very selective in what data was stored and how," says George Burns III. A senior consultant for cloud operations at SPR, a technology modernisation firm, Burns notes that today, "the opposite is true, in that storage is often the least expensive component of a system, which has led many organisations to adopt a 'store everything forever' mentality."

The most straightforward way to reduce data center emissions is to power those data centers with clean energy. This can turn out to be a quick win for companies looking to burnish their green credentials. As the cost of renewables continues to drop, it is also becoming a relatively inexpensive fix. "Customers of corporate colocation data centers are increasingly seeking more sustainable energy supplies, which thanks to recent progress they will be able to access more and more," says Chris Pennington, director of energy and sustainability at Iron Mountain. "Operators in our industry, Iron Mountain amongst them, have proven that renewables are a reliable and cost-effective energy source by activating innovative procurement solutions, and it is making clean energy more accessible to all."

Solving IT's data problem with data

A slew of companies are now trying to solve the data problem with data—that is, by using data analytics and other IT techniques to reduce the amount of stored data. For instance, Moogsoft, the developer of an AIOps incident management platform, uses machine learning algorithms to try to reduce the amount of data at rest and in motion on customer infrastructure. While this functionality has always been part of Moogsoft's pitch, company CTO Richard Whitehead says he's seen customers' motivations change in recent years.

"We're definitely seeing the shift going from 'I want to use fewer resources' to 'We need to be more environmentally conscious about the resources that we use,'" he explains. "We had a roadmap briefing with one of our very large customers in the energy business. And they said right off that they were intending to be carbon neutral within a certain number of years, which I thought was a fascinating and very high-level way to start a conversation with an IT vendor."

So what's behind that push? Whitehead says that "when people decide to do the right thing, it's because they have to because of legislation, because it makes sense because of economics, or because of brand." The economics argument is the most straightforward: achieving the same goal while using less electricity is good for the Earth and for the bottom line. Regulations are also a familiar driver, though climate regulations are tougher in some places than others. As for branding, he says, "we've definitely seen larger organisations, particularly in retail, whose brand focuses on, doing the right thing and being green. For those organisations to have a high carbon footprint is not a good look."

How tracking carbon helps to reduce it

Services are emerging to deliver the data that can help align organisations' operations with these goals. One example is TrueCarbon, which uses AI to analyse data center usage and identify patterns that help customers understand, control, and reduce cloud spending and carbon emissions. Kelly Fleming, CIO of Cirrus Nexus, the company that makes TrueCarbon, says that in their customer base, "some are looking to control spiraling costs without compromising their IT infrastructure’s performance, while others want to understand and reduce their organisation’s carbon footprint." He doesn't see these two motivations being necessarily in conflict. "TrueCarbon seeks to marry these two objectives," he says. "By giving companies the ability to apply a cost to their carbon emissions through the platform, business decisions on how and where to deploy workloads based on cost inherently start to incorporate carbon emissions considerations."

Cloud storage provider Wasabi is looking to cater to customers who want to reduce their carbon footprint with a carbon footprint calculator. The tool estimates how much energy they will use based on the Wasabi data center they are storing in and how much data they store. "Over the past few years, Wasabi channel partners and customers have grown increasingly interested in decarbonisation and sustainability as part of their broader environmental, social, and governmental objectives," says David Boland, Wasabi's VP of cloud strategy. "Customers are increasingly focused on sustainability for several reasons, including increased environment, social, and governance (ESG) reporting requirements, and internal sustainability efforts. Many are preparing for more stringent requirements or pursuing customers, investors, and employees who are attracted to ESG-centric products, services, and employers."

Greenly is a company that aims to go beyond the data center, offering a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform for carbon accounting and carbon management. "In practice, businesses start their carbon accounting because it's requested by clients, in the course of an RFP, or simply as a core requirement to work with a large account," says Greenly CEO Alexis Normand. "In the US or UK, for instance, being a supplier to the administration now means having a plan to reduce your emissions. Regulations are usually not the prime driver. What we have learned working with nearly 1,000 customers is that most companies start their climate journey when they see that it's essential to thrive as a business, either to attract the right kind of customers or the right kind of employees."

Fighting climate change from the bottom up

Stacy Smedley was once in a position not unlike customers of companies like Greenly or Wasabi: she wanted to better understand the carbon footprint of her work. She wasn't in IT—she worked at the construction giant Skanska—but she soon found herself as the protagonist in a typical tech industry story: Unable to find the tech tool she wanted, she assembled a team and built one.

Smedley is now the executive director of Building Transparency, which offers a searchable, sortable, fully digital, and standardised database of global Environmental Product Declarations, or EPDs. These standardised documents are critical to understanding the amount of embodied carbon—that is, the amount of CO2 it takes to create something—in just about any product you can name, from concrete to spaghetti. Smedley believes these documents contain data that is key to reducing carbon across the lifecycles of whole industries. Just the existence of that data could be transformative.

"First there was a credit in the LEED rating system that gave you points for just getting EPDs for your products that you were installing," she explains. "So the market here really started with manufacturers wanting to be able to say, 'Yes, I've got an EPD for my product, so you should use me in your building.' But if you're disclosing the amount of CO2 in every cubic yard of concrete that you make or square foot of carpet tile, it's innate that people are going start using that for more than just transparency, which is what I did. I was looking at it more through the lens of comparison and really prioritising the lower carbon option."

Building Transparency's trajectory follows another pattern that should be familiar to those in IT: What began as an in-house project at Skanska was spun off as a nonprofit. Funding from Microsoft, a Skanska client, supported the nonprofit in offering free and open access to its database of EPDs. (Users who want early access to new features or local database instances can choose a paid account.)

Company leaders are using Building Transparency to meet their ESG goals or regulatory mandates. But Smedley sees this kind of open data access being used to enable bottom-up environmental decisions. "I think we have a whole tier of users that are the juniors at their architecture companies or at the places where they work who love the fact that they can go in for free and access this stuff and do what they can without asking for permission," she says. "That's big, and that's important to me."

Green tech and 'doing the right thing'

With transparent access to carbon emissions data, people at all levels in all industries can take action to fight climate change. Greenly is one company that believes its products will help customers improve employee satisfaction, and it is not alone.

"As a small software company, we're also interested in people and incentivising our employees," says Moogsoft's Whitehead. "And, it's pretty obvious that if you ask any one of our employees and say, you've got a choice: if you write this piece of code, the world's going to become a better place, or if you write that piece of code, somebody's going to go burn a tire somewhere. They're going to choose the first one. Everybody is happy about doing the right thing."

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Access4 holds inaugural A/NZ Annual Conference
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