Green IT or "Sustainable IT" will be at the heart of the next wave of economic transformation

by Olivier Lacombe - Partner, IT Advisory Lead, France
| minute read

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Published on December 8th, 2022 on Décideurs Magazine

While there is no longer any doubt about the urgency of the planet's climate situation and the growing awareness of the importance of the environment in our lives, the scattered actions of some organisations are introducing noise where we need serenity and discernment: the only thing that matters is to reduce our environmental footprint on a massive and lasting scale, and for the business world, the IT Department has a central role to play right now. 

Awareness and environmental dogmatism 

We are living in a very peculiar age, where good dogmatic thinking prevails over everything else, especially when it comes to ecology and environmental protection. For several years now, however, it has been absolutely clear that human action is at the root of a climate disruption that will lead to catastrophe in the medium term, and that we all need to take action at our own level. 

What is less obvious, however, is the method for solving this equation with 10,000 unknown factors. Let's face it, trying to create a buzz with spectacular and totally incongruous actions won't change a thing, if only because the method obviously doesn't make it possible to address what must be targeted as an absolute priority, i.e. the large masses of pollution. 

"Companies that take the challenges of digital sustainability too lightly run the risk of being disqualified by the market". 

Taking the digital sector as an example, it has been established since 2019 by Arcep and the Shift Project that the digital sector accounts for between 3 and 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide, almost as much as civil aviation, And this proportion is likely to grow by around 8%1 per year, reaching 60% by 2040 for France, or 6.7% of the national carbon footprint2, with, in particular, the democratisation of technologies such as 5G and the IoT, which encourage ever more uses and ever more devices and equipment to support them. 

So will activists start setting fire to their own state-of-the-art smartphones? The very ones that allow them to broadcast their actions live on social networks? It's hard to stay consistent and not just chip away at the tip of the (melting) iceberg. 

From digital to sustainable digital (transform or die) 

Over the past decade or so, digital technology has become an essential part of our daily lives, and companies have all, without exception, embarked on at least one digital transformation of their operations to meet the expectations and new digital uses of their customers. However, with the impact of digital technology predicted to increase over the coming years, companies are going to have to change their transformation paradigm very quickly in order to put the notion of sustainable digital technology at the heart of their strategic plan. 

More and more major groups are starting to think about this, sometimes including in their multi-year plans a vision of the raison d'être of their value proposition to society, some making commitments to carbon neutrality, others even going so far as to become mission-driven companies. However, levels of maturity still vary widely, firstly because certain sectors such as transport, electro-intensive industries and energy are naturally more aware than others; and secondly, because while awareness is widespread, the translation into concrete, effective action is less immediate. And yet this is the crux of the matter: how can you commit your group to an approach that will show real results without being accused of “green washing”, particularly in the face of social pressure that is only growing as the impact of climate change increases? 

Companies that take the challenges of sustainable digital development too lightly today run the risk of being disqualified by the market in the near future. Indeed, if customers' purchasing decisions become increasingly conditional on compliance with genuine environmental commitments, and if it becomes more difficult to attract and retain young talent who have been hypersensitive to the environment from an early age and hyperexposed to digital technology, the company will automatically find itself in a situation of decline. Being carbon neutral by buying carbon offsets will clearly not be enough for long. 

Sustainable digital technology implies a real transformation of the corporate IT model 

So how can our businesses work effectively to make digital technology more sustainable? In terms of governance, the management of digital operations, and therefore the control of their environmental impact, is the responsibility of IT. It is therefore the responsibility of the IT Services Department (ISD) to manage and monitor this impact through its network infrastructures, data centres and other IT equipment, as well as indirectly through those of its partners. 

The aim for IT teams must be to target their efforts where the potential gains are greatest. Plans to rationalise infrastructures and optimise storage have been underway for many years now, and this is indirectly helping to reduce the digital impact, even if the primary issue was certainly more economic than environmental. 

On the other hand, the development of Cloud services opens up another debate that is structuring from an environmental point of view for businesses: it automatically shifts part of the digital impact to hyperscalers, who are now under fire for their undeniable role as digital catalysts. However, given the scale of the pooling and their colossal resources, won't they always be more virtuous from an energy point of view than if all the CIOs continued to maintain and grow their private data centres? 

This should not absolve IT teams from putting in place a system of governance that enables them to control the consumption of these services by their businesses. Indeed, even if hosting is moved to the cloud, the explosion in the use of these services has a direct impact on the environment, and frugality in the use of their services will always be antithetical to the business model of nail manufacturers. 

"Making the purchasing department responsible for sustainable digital technology is symptomatic of an organisation that believes that the environmental impact is felt first and foremost by its suppliers, before being felt at home"

Having said that, in terms of large masses, in France the 5G networks and data centres of the digital giants account for less than 20% of the environmental impact3. The remaining 80% is accounted for by IT equipment, including the massive extraction on the other side of the world of the rare metals needed to manufacture it, such as lithium, silicon and tantalum, among many others, with massive dependence on certain nations and extraction conditions that are sometimes inhumane. One of the best levers for optimising the environmental footprint is therefore the ability of IT asset managers to extend the lifespan of their employees' equipment, but without going so far as to degrade productivity or retention too much. In comparison, this type of action offers a much better return on investment in terms of impact than the usual mail cleaning campaigns, which are more symbolic in terms of results, but remain an interesting exercise in raising awareness and mobilising teams around the issue. 

On the other hand, the fact that some companies are currently making the purchasing department responsible for sustainable digital development is symptomatic of an organisation that considers that the environmental impact is felt first and foremost by its suppliers, before being felt by the company itself, and this means ignoring the management of its equipment and servers and other possible actions at their level. 

IT partners such as outsourcers, software application publishers and hyperscalers are effectively involved in the company's operations. The extent of their impact and the way in which they deal with this issue in their own operations must be taken into account in the analysis of the company's overall impact, but this remains only one of the components of the measurement of the environmental footprint. 

Measurement for measurement's sake is pointless, only reducing the environmental footprint counts 

The ultimate goal is to reduce the company's digital footprint, and in order to know the positive (or negative) impact of all the actions taken within the organisation, it is essential to measure the initial state of IT consumption and to be able to reproduce this measurement regularly to monitor the effects of the actions taken. Measurement is therefore essential, but will never be more than a first step, particularly for the largest companies where the number of applications and machines is really too large to carry out detailed, unitary measurement. What is important is not so much knowing the impact of your IT to the nearest kilogram of Co2 equivalent, but above all being able to use the same calculation method for the whole of your perimeter and extrapolate a value that will become the measurement reference level for steering corrective actions. 

The arsenal of levers available to IT Departments can then be prioritised and deployed, ideally by first working on the broad areas such as extending the lifespan of equipment, eco-design or the frugality of projects and functionalities, mixing them in parallel with other more symbolic but unifying actions such as awareness-raising or training, without forgetting to work on its intrinsic performance. The more efficient IT is for the company's operations, the more its environmental impact will be optimised. 

It is therefore urgent for companies to move away from demonstrations and incantations and take concrete, effective action backed up by a clear, formalised strategy, the only way to curb the explosion in the use of their digital services. There is no escaping the fact that, if they do not take this approach seriously and focus solely on complying with the new regulations in force, the market and their customers are likely to remind them of this much sooner than they think. 

[1] Source ARCEP and The Shift Project 201 
[2] Source: Citizing as part of the Senate's information mission on the environmental footprint of digital technology. 
[3] Source: ARCEP Progress report, summary of the working platform and proposals for a sustainable digital future. 

 

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