Becoming digitally sustainable
The digital ecosystem has an incredibly large carbon footprint.
It’s been reported in numerous places that the Internet has a larger footprint than the aviation industry, representing 3.7% of global carbon emissions. In 2018, the ICT industry made up 10% of the worlds electricity consumption and is predicted to grow to 20% by 2025 making the Internet humanities biggest ever machine.
Most of us see digital as a step forward, as a way to enable businesses to be more sustainable but not many consider the physical impact of this mostly invisible polluter.
What is digital sustainability?
Bettina Tratz-Ryan defined digital sustainability for TechMonitor as:
Digital sustainability harnesses the tools of digital transformation, such as enhanced connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT), to improve the environment and support sustainable business operations. But with the Internet accounting for around 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions it can be a tricky circle to square.
Tim Frick from MightyBytes defined digital sustainability as:
Digital sustainability is the process of applying social, economic, and environmental stewardship principles to digital products, services, and data delivered via the Internet.
At Aline, we define digital sustainability as:
Measuring, reporting and lowering carbon emissions caused by an organisation’s digital operations by creating an alignment between emissions created by both digital and physical sources.
This definition builds on that of Tim’s and seems to adhere with the thoughts of the digital community as we apply processes and principles in order to lower the emissions we are directly responsible for through our use of digital products and services.
Where does our impact come from?
The key thing that makes digital sustainability an issue and the one thing we can control is data.
This data is stored, processed, transmitted, and rendered and comes from all the digital products and services we use.
Behind those services is a series of interconnected networks and servers that we call the Cloud. Don’t even be fooled by the term serverless, even that still uses servers that are managed by someone else.
This can be broken down into three categories:
Networks – transmitting data between servers or to a device
Servers – storing and processing data
Devices – requesting, downloading, and rendering data
We’ve noticed over the past few years that more and more people are talking about digital sustainability but are focusing on websites which, while brilliant, only scratches the surface.
What can we do about it?
Champion the cause
Outside of the technical aspect, (which we’ll go through later) make digital sustainability a part of ESG and/or net zero targets.
This can take a digital sustainability champion, whether someone with a technical background or not to ensure that emissions caused by digital operations aren’t missed.
If your organisation creates digital products and services, implementing CDR or Corporate Digital Responsibility, which is an extension of CSR, to include digital operations. Implementing CDR means going further than lowering emissions as it also works on social and economic issues too.
A single Instagram post by footballer Christiano Ronaldo uses the same amount of electricity as 10 houses do in a year. – Dispatches (Channel 4)
The old saying goes ‘if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed’ so that’s the first thing we should do.
At the very core of digital sustainability is:
Data = energy = CO2
Or data, whether stored, processed, transmitted, or rendered, uses energy in the form of electricity which then generates CO2.
“Making changes to reduce your digital carbon impact is as much a cultural change as anything. We consistently come up against the point of view that making small changes don’t make a difference, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every email you delete or even don’t send, means a smaller carbon footprint overall. Green hosting is only part of the solution. Changing the culture around the causes, effects and solutions to digital carbon footprints is a whole other challenge.”
- Stephan Briggs Group CEO, Yard
Unfortunately, there’s no complete consensus on how to accurately measure the impact of our digital usage so estimates are all we have to work with. This is down to the complexities that exist with providers, with different hardware and connectivity and the variations they have as well as the variation in carbon intensity at the time of the request and the route the request takes bouncing from server to server across the world for international requests – think loading an Argentinian website from Sweden.
There are now a number of tools to help estimate emissions that are caused by digital usage and even new services that can help with this. A handful of free tools would be:
Cloud carbon footprint – a self-hosted web application that estimates the emissions of Cloud computing, supports AWS, GCF and Azure
Beacon – a simple web application to estimate the emission of a web page (shameless plug as we built this) where the data can then be plugged in to analytics data to estimate the emissions of a website
Some infrastructure providers have their own and can provide their own recommendations to lower your footprint. There’s been some coverage about how ‘accurate’ a particular provider’s tools are so using multiple and comparing is the best way to ensure the most accurate numbers are used.
While some tools don’t exist at the minute, there are constantly new developments, and as more and more people talk about this subject more developments are made.
Once these estimations have been created, we can start to report them as part of your organisations carbon reporting. Adhering to the GHG protocol with reporting, all digital emissions are classed as scope 3, with hosting and Cloud usage and other services classed as purchased goods and services and network usage being classed as energy related activities that aren’t covered within scope 1 or 2.
This reporting may become a requirement as new legislation comes in. The EU has the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive which will amend the existing reporting requirements included in the non-financial reporting direct. The CSRD is currently in the works having been proposed in April 2021 with January 2024 the date of it becoming enforced. The directive is directly aimed at larger organisations initially with SMEs having a delayed timeline.
The US also has legislation in the works too, to ensure that all suppliers have all of their emissions reported to the SEC, stakeholders, and investors.
Both of these pieces of legislation take into account scope 3 so should include digital by default. They also mean that the UK will be following closely behind with its own legislation to ensure that emissions are lowered with the government having their own net zero targets. The NHS even commissioned a report into the impact of digital technologies on their net zero goals and improving patient care – although the report focuses on the use of artificial intelligence.
While digital specific legislation doesn’t exist, adding those additional emissions ensures that no stone is unturned, and the reports contain as much as possible.
While some of the reduction strategies involve some technical skills, these are mainly for suppliers i.e., those who create websites, digital services, or software.
Every kilo counts – Stephan Briggs Group CEO, Yard
With GDPR and other privacy laws being in force, service providers need a data retention policy which states how long user data is stored for. These policies however do not cover internal data. Whether they are emails, working files, documents, records, images or anything else that is saved on a server, these files aren’t included as Cloud storage is incredibly low priced, so people tend to save and forget. Extending these policies to include these files helps immensely but you can’t stop there as there needs to be procedures to help staff members follow them. This can include some form of educational effort to help get staff on board.
Sometimes being digitally sustainable means doing better by doing less; think about all of the ‘thank you’ emails that are sent or social media posts that are created with no regard to the emissions they create.
Making sustainability a part of every digital purchase is just as important. Looking at suppliers’ ESG or net zero targets should impact on your decision making whether the emissions caused by your usage can be measured or not. This should include everything including digital marketing and web design where you could add items within a request-for-proposal that stipulate a carbon budget for the duration of these services.
If you are in a position to do so, taking a look and implementing CDR as an extension of CSR helps ensure that your organisation focuses on creating and using digital services that are perceived as socially, economically, and environmentally responsible.
There are a number of best practices that can be followed by service providers, dependant on what they offer.
Sustainable web design is a collective effort to help give guidance to web designers and developers as well as account and project managers to help create digital experiences that have the lowest carbon footprint possible. More information can be found on the sustainable web design website: sustainablewebdesign.org
The green web foundation goes a step further with resources and additional guidance as well as tools including one to check whether your hosting provider is green (uses renewable energy or is carbon neutral): thegreenwebfoundation.org
Lastly, the green software foundation has resources and a large community to help create standards and best practices for creating green software with strong leadership from Microsoft: greensoftware.foundation
These initiatives are inherently technical with a focus on web design and infrastructure as there are more people talking about those than other aspects. There is knowledge from these that can be implemented into other use cases. As a prime example, implementing some of the best practices from sustainable web design into designing email newsletters would help lower their impact too.
Is this really a big deal?
Simply put, yes. With international organisations supporting some of the community efforts such as the green software foundation, the green web foundation actively takes part in projects to create tools to help green the web.
Even the UN getting involved with the publication of the CODES Action Plan. The Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES), an international multi-stakeholder alliance, was created in response to the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
With contributions from over 1,000 people with a diverse mixture of backgrounds including academia, civil science, private sector government and non-government organisations around the world, the CODES Action Plan was published with a comprehensive plan to explore the intersection of and close the gap between digital technology and sustainability.
This plan contains a list of principles for organisations to adopt (where possible) and are split between three areas representing the fundamental systemic shifts needed to implement digital transformation in a sustainable way.
Enable alignment: Aligning vision, values, and objectives of the digital age with sustainable development
Mitigation negative impacts: Ensure sustainable digitalisation to mitigate negative environmental and social impacts, this should include mitigating the impact of current digital services where usage is unavoidable
Accelerate innovation: Directing innovation efforts toward digitalisation for sustainability
Whilst we believe this is a brilliant and critical piece of work towards reducing the carbon impact of digital, the CODES Action Plan proposes a set of impact initiatives that are global in their vision and multi-stakeholder in their application. As a result, it will have a limited impact on SME’s or organisations that don’t have a global reach.
Luckily though, there are still a number of direct actions as touched on before that every business can take as almost all organisations manage, own, or use products and services that are digital in nature. All of which have a negative carbon impact that can be lowered.
Most organisations can easily adopt the first two pillars in creating alignment in vision and values to enable sustainable digitalisation and mitigating the impacts of current digital systems.
We are at the crest of a wave at the minute, with momentum building for a greener Internet. Initiatives like this are great as it shows how things are building and even creating this article shows that too. There’s never been a better time to start thinking about digital emissions and bringing them in line with other sustainability initiatives to ensure we’re doing all we can for a more sustainable future.