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Big tech and the move to net zero carbon

24 July 2020: The world’s largest technology companies are making big moves to reduce their carbon emissions. ICAEW Tech Faculty’s Kirstin Gillon reviews the latest announcements and asks what other businesses can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

Earlier this week, Apple announced a target of 2030 for them to shift their entire business and supply chain to being carbon neutral. This follows hard on the heels of a series of similar announcements. 

Amazon announced that it was targeting 2040 for carbon neutrality, while Microsoft has plans to go even further – not only will it be carbon negative by 2030, but by 2050 it will have  extracted from the environment the same amount of carbon it has ever emitted. Meanwhile, Google announced in 2019 that it had made the ‘biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history’. 

These developments recognise two competing narratives about tech and climate change. On the one hand, advanced digital technologies will be powerful aids in the fight against climate change. Big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain and the internet of things provide tremendous opportunities to enable more efficient use of energy and natural resources, measure and monitor the environmental impact of business activities, as well as enable bigger transformations in the economy which support greener business models.  

However, tech also consumes huge amounts of energy. As we increasingly rely on digital technology in everything we do, and companies ramp up investments in tech as part of post-COVID recovery plans, we need to make sure that the benefits of tech are not outweighed by significant growth in its carbon emissions.  

Focus on data centres 

Tech companies have been working for years to reduce the carbon footprint of data centres, in particular. This has involved a number of steps, such as: 

  • Use of scale and efficiency: hyperscale data centres – the large-scale data centres operated by companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft – have greatly increased the efficiency of data centre operations and enabled the sector to grow greatly while keeping energy consumption broadly flat.  
  • Heating and cooling systems: a lot of data centres have been located in cool places to make use of ‘free air cooling’, simply pumping in outside air to help cool servers naturally. Other data centres use piped warm water to cool down servers. Google has even used machine learning to fine-tune its heating and cooling systems by matching operations more closely to the weather and other factors.   

Tech companies have also been big investors in renewable energy to power data centres. Google says that its investments generate enough renewable energy to match its energy consumption over a year.  

The challenge of devices 

However, while the tech sector may have done a lot of work on data centres, there are still many areas where more work is needed. Indeed, a bigger problem for the sector is the proliferation of devices, which account for around half of the sector’s emissions.

Most of this relates to their manufacture, including the mining of rare metals, but emissions also come from charging, use and the waste created when they’re discarded. The business model of the tech sector is the exact opposite of what is needed from an environmental perspective – encouraging regular upgrades of hardware. While recycling and reusing are available, they are not widely used by consumers or businesses. 

Therefore, the plans of companies such as Apple and Amazon are particularly important. Apple is looking across its entire supply chain and plans to address issues such as device manufacture. One of Amazon’s big challenges is the use of delivery trucks and the need to move to electric vehicles.

Ways to reduce carbon footprint

So what can companies do to help here? Measuring your tech carbon footprint can be hard, given the common reliance on third parties and difficulties in splitting out energy consumption. But there are a number of basic principles around efficiency and minimising waste which can be helpful.

  • Devices: it’s a simple equation - the more devices, the higher the carbon footprint. Manufacturing is one of the biggest parts of the tech carbon footprint so think of ways to minimise devices.
  • Energy efficiency: apply some basic principles of energy efficiency around tech. Switching things off overnight, disconnecting devices when you’re not using them and reducing screen resolution can all help reduce energy consumption.
  • Digital waste: everything you do online uses a small amount of computing power and network activity so develop good habits which minimise this. Collaboration tools are very useful in this regard, as they minimise duplication and sending of documents.
  • Suppliers: cloud and other tech suppliers are likely to be an important part of your carbon footprint so include questions about environment measures and energy efficiency as part of your standard supplier due diligence.
  • Use tech to reduce footprint: there are many ways that businesses can use tech to reduce their carbon footprint in other areas. Moving paperless and reducing printing, for example, is a common benefit. Reducing travel through the use of video conferencing, webinars and other online tools is another clear way that businesses can use tech to reduce emissions more generally.