Digitally transformed, but carbon heavy: how can digital transformation help us achieve Net Zero?

Digital transformation has freed us up to do more, more effectively and efficiently, from anywhere in the world. But what are the real costs? Jacqui Lees of Atkins explores the environmental ramifications
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By Atkins

21 Jun 2021

There’s no doubt that the global pandemic has empowered organisations to embrace digital transformation. In just one year, we’ve seen radical changes and improvements made in the way organisations operate – something that many public and private sector organisations have been striving to achieve for decades.

Digital transformation has freed us up to do more, more effectively and efficiently, from anywhere in the world. But what are the real costs?

As we use technologies and artificial intelligence to do work on our behalf, there is a growing concern that the side-effect of digital technology, and the voracious growth of data usage, is significantly contributing to global CO2 emissions. Estimates of these emissions vary from 1.4% to 5.9% – so it really is a significant issue. Especially when compared with the global emissions that the maritime transport sector produces, known for being one of the big carbon emitters, and responsible for more than 2% of global emissions, as recently reported by the BBC.

 

Hidden environmental cost

Many of us don’t even realise there’s an environmental cost associated with high levels of data use. To many of us, the cloud is something ‘up in the air’ and out of sight. The reality is, the cloud is powered by massive energy consumption in data warehouses, and underwater pipes that are heating up the ocean floor.

As more organisations are digitally transforming, the amount of data being stored and sent is growing exponentially and is likely to continue. In our own business, Atkins, we saw a marked increase of around 100,000 extra emails being sent, as almost all employees worked from home.

In 2018 the nature.com website published the article ‘How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity’ which stated that internet traffic had grown from 2TB in 1987 to a staggering 1.1ZB (zettabytes, or 1 x 10 to the power of 21) 30 years later in 2017, and most concerningly, with one expert predicting that “data-centre electricity use is likely to increase about 15-fold by 2030, to 8% of projected global demand.”


Towards achieving Net Zero by 2050 

In 2019, the UK government committed to achieving Net Zero by 2050. We have started to see our government setting out policies, which are now flowing down to project and supply chain requirements, but is this enough? Surely now we must look to building a digitally transformed world, where we’re using systems and technology in the way intended, but without destroying the environment, without comprising the user experience, and where we still have freedom of choice?

Only 41% of carbon reduction will be achieved by introducing green energy and technologies

Although much effort is going into securing green energy sources, this doesn’t solve the wider challenge of the increasing amounts of storage being required, so it’s really only a part of the desired solution. In fact, the Climate Change Committee analysis on the sixth carbon budget suggests that only 41% of carbon reduction will be achieved by introducing green energy and technologies – with the remaining amount only being achieved by people’s behaviour change. So, what can we do, as organisations and as individuals, to effect such change – as it’s clearly the only way we’ll reach Net Zero by 2050?


Creating a common purpose

It’s time for organisations – and that means people in them, you and me – to ask how they can create environmentally sustainable principles into their organisational and digital strategies if they’re in the C-suite. It also means creating a common purpose among employees, starting from the top and working down, and a purpose that isn’t necessarily concerned with the financial results of the organisation.

On a more practical tack, it means organisations need to look at ways they can nudge behavioural change among the workforce, such as limiting the availability of data storage space, by encouraging auto-archiving or deleting, by sending fewer emails, and by making sure no systems are duplicating effort and doing the same task unnecessarily.

As individuals, we need to consider now what we can do differently that is in our gift, because small actions do add up. For example, if ten full-time employees were able to send five fewer emails a day, they could save enough CO2 to power a flight from London to Paris by the end of the year.

 

Changing the conversation

As managers and leaders, we can also change the conversation. Discuss a CO2 issue in daily meetings. Ask questions about how, as a team, you’re doing your bit and imagine how you can do more. Change the conversation to put Net Zero higher up the agenda. Digital transformation has given us so much freedom. It has let us work anywhere and communicate with our colleagues and loved ones all over the globe. But we’re paying a price for that in our energy consumption.

We have this decade to slow down climate change through our actions, and we must start now. So, next time you send that email, sign up for another newsletter, or attach a large file stop and think – do I really need to? As Sir David Attenborough said: “Surely we all have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity and indeed, all life on earth, now depends on us.”

Jacqui Lees is Net Zero and Social Value director at Atkins   

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