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What businesses can do about digital pollution


Victoria Usher

Published On:

May 27, 2021

Published In:

Industry News | Technology Insights

What businesses can do about digital pollution

The carbon footprint of digital pollution might not be easily visible, but its impact is sizeable. Greenhouse gasses created by building and powering digital technology make up 4% of global emissions, double that of the aviation industry. According to the BBC, dividing the 1.7 billion tonnes of gasses generated annually between the total online population would leave each internet user responsible for roughly 414kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

Efforts to minimise environmental effects and maximise tech benefits are already underway. Open initiative ClimateAction.Tech has recruited over 2,500 tech sector experts to use their skills for the good of the planet, while Microsoft’s AI for Earth programme is offering funding and resources for projects such as The Ocean Cleanup. During the pandemic, however, increased recognition of the climate crisis has driven greater motivation to push forward faster.

Given the huge part digital tools play in everyday operations and efficiency, addressing corporate digital pollution is no simple task — but, as with all challenges, the solution lies with a better understanding of the core issues and how to tackle them.

How big of a challenge is digital pollution?

On their own, daily activities such as sending an email or running a search don’t add up to much, with typical estimates at 10g of CO2e per email and 7g for searches. Problems arise when these events are scaled. As explained by James Harper, marketing manager for Viessmann: “The average office worker sends 120 emails a day, meaning a business housing 50 employees generates 6,264kg of carbon emissions a year.” That’s not to mention the toll of browsing web pages, uploading files, transferring data, and streaming online content.

These emissions are partly down to the energy consumed by connected devices, but the chief culprit is the sheer volume of data centres and servers that fuel the internet — particularly cooling systems. Globally, data centres account for nearly 200 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy use and recent predictions state that by 2040, their CO2e could grow to 14% of total global emissions; equal to the current overall emissions of the United States.

This energy strain has only intensified amid recent COVID-19 disruption, with the abrupt shift to remote work forcing the majority of companies to digitally transform their operations. Despite positive climate gains in lower office electricity use and improved air quality from reduced daily commutes, operating at a distance has inevitably increased reliance on high-consumption tools such as video conferencing. In fact, studies have shown just one hour of video calling or streaming emits 150-1,000g of CO2, requires up to 12 litres of water, and demands a land area around the size of an iPad Mini.

What can businesses do?

No matter what their industry, the success of any company now depends on their ability to ensure streamlined workflows, make informed data-based decisions, and maintain strong communications, both internally and externally. As a result, reliance on digital tech will keep on growing — but this doesn’t mean pollution is also destined to increase.

There are plenty of opportunities for business leaders to reduce their digital impact at multiple levels. For example, steps such as turning off cameras in some video calls can reduce emissions by 96%, while cutting back on “thank you” emails could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year. Similarly, switching to cleantech tools can help tackle inefficiencies and bolster green goals; with the likes of Cleanfox providing an inbox clearing app that automatically removes unwanted emails and search engine Ecosia planting a tree for every 45 searches it runs.

When it comes to larger changes, there is also scope for organisations to build wider tech infrastructure with eco-friendly principles in mind. Selecting providers, solutions and energy sources that aim to protect the climate can go a long way towards offsetting their digital footprint, particularly in three core areas:

Embracing responsible data centres: With many players striving to make data centres cleaner, companies have multiple green options to choose from. Google, for instance, has leveraged artificially intelligent (AI) neural networks to better monitor and optimise power consumption, while Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft have pledged to use 100% renewable energy to power their data centre facilities. In addition, data centres such as DigiPlex and Cloud&Heat are actively harnessing the surplus heat produced by servers to provide utilities for homes and offices. 

Moving to the cloud: Consolidated cloud platforms present an eco-friendly alternative to in-house tech. Although they are still reliant on data centres, cloud-based tools tend to have superior hardware that requires fewer servers and backup systems to run, in addition to offering higher utilisation rates — meaning energy use is lower. In fact, a 2010 Microsoft and Accenture study found cloud solutions can reduce carbon emissions by 30% compared to on-premise solutions. 

Cloud-based services have also undergone huge growth in the last few years, expanding to cover a variety of business needs; from accounting solutions such as Kashflow to specialist people management software, including Cezanne HR. Moreover, the tech scape has also welcomed several clean tech players such as Goby — offering streamlined environmental, social, governance (ESG) management — and mixed compliance and energy use optimisation platform, EHS Insight

Boosting automation: The environmental impact of data silos is too often overlooked. Not only does wading through disordered data sets absorb power and time, but it can also prevent businesses from identifying greener ways of working. PwC has predicted that deploying AI to optimise manual tasks could bring emission reductions of 6-8% in 2030, and new tools are constantly emerging to help bring firms closer to realising this potential. The NeuerEnergy AI platform, for example, can combine analyse the current resource use across organisations and enable automatic procurement for renewable energy and other net-zero products.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that digital pollution is a significant problem that organisations across the board must work harder to tackle. Armed with smart strategies and tools, however, businesses can apply multiple measures that make a big difference.  

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