Many climate impacts are overlooked in the world of technology, and they are growing

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Despite all the focus in recent years on the need for organizations to be more environmentally friendly, one area that could use improvement is the data center and other IT infrastructure.

Matt Warburton, principal consultant and head of sustainability at IT consultancy ISG, said the environmental impact of IT has been largely ignored.

“It is a complex topic and requires new knowledge and investments,” he said. Improving the energy efficiency of systems “may be difficult to explain and justify in the context of other, more traditional investment decisions, given the multi-faceted nature of the benefits.”

The biggest areas overlooked are emissions, water and waste from workplace devices, Warburton said. “While data centers, applications and infrastructure are often the target – and rightly so, since they typically account for the bulk of IT impact – hardware is also a very important contributor,” he said.

Looking to the future, the impact of IT is unlikely to be overlooked, Warburton said. “IT managers are starting to see that the same tools used to increase sustainability can also reduce cost, without impacting the quality of experiences and business agility,” he said.

In addition, CIOs are increasingly being asked by their C-suite peers and broader stakeholder groups to provide new technology solutions to sustainability challenges in business operations, Warburton said. This leads to a slow but steady increase in the knowledge and capabilities of the IT department, he added.

“The environmental impact of IT, as a proportion of the overall business impact, is increasing,” Warburton said. “As key business processes – such as construction, manufacturing and transport – become decarbonised and more circular while the use of IT accelerates dramatically, IT will represent a much larger part of the pie chart.”

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The impact of information technology on the environment by sector

The impact of information technology on the environment varies by sector. The IT carbon footprint will be more important for industries with high IT intensity than for industries with low IT intensity, according to Christine Muir, research vice president and distinguished analyst at research firm Gartner.

“This means that IT sustainability is lower hanging fruit in an industry like retail banking than in industrial manufacturing,” Muir said. “In other words, retail banking IT may be one of the first to the party while industrial IT may arrive later.”

Muir said the strategic ambition for sustainability within an organization can also play a role when IT sustainability is prioritized. “Organisations that focus primarily on sustainability compliance, such as meeting regulations, or optimization, such as brand influence, may require IT to contribute later in the process,” she said. “It can sometimes take five years or more after starting a sustainability journey. But if the strategic ambition is to drive sustainable transformation and disruptive change through new products and services, the IT department may be asked to contribute immediately.”

ESG, energy use and IT net zero

Technology leaders can take steps to help reduce the environmental impact of IT in their organizations. Here are some basic items to get started.

Create a strategy and foundation for ESG data.

“More than half of CEOs use spreadsheets for some ESG data,” Muir said. “This is low cost, but it is also low quality and greatly limits ESG data in reporting in hindsight.”

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The value of ESG goes far beyond reporting, Muir said. “ESG data can drive financial performance, mitigate risk and accelerate sustainability progress,” she said. “CIOs must develop an ESG data strategy that goes beyond hindsight to also support vision and insight.”

Establish a baseline for energy use.

“Start by collecting all available data on emissions, waste and water from the technology sector,” Warburton said. “You will need to request a lot of this information from your technology solution providers, so your purchasing and vendor management teams will need support.”

Then, prioritize getting this core data from all data centers, networks, cloud devices, on-premises, and managed services, Warburton said. The baseline enables IT to prioritize initiatives to reduce the impact of systems on the environment.

Educate and motivate employees to make sustainable decisions based on data.

Make the baseline visible and use it to educate teams. “This data will enable your employees to engage and feel empowered to make a difference, leading to new and innovative ways to become more sustainable without increasing cost,” Warburton said.

It’s also wise, Warburton said, to incentivize or mandate consideration of underlying data in the decision-making process. “For example, overlay data on existing transformation programs, such as cloud migration or hybrid work, to achieve a sustainability perspective,” he said. “What changes can be made to reduce, reuse or repair IT assets? What is the cost/benefit? Taking this approach can identify quick wins with minimal impact on current priorities.”

Set a net-zero IT goal and collaborate with technology providers.

“Overall, they are among the most ‘sustainability-savvy’ organizations out there, with ambitious commitments to their own operations and deep experience in reducing the environmental impact of IT,” said Warburton.

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Muir said companies should develop a net-zero roadmap for sustainable IT. “More than 40% of Fortune 500 companies have a net zero goal,” she said. “If an organization has a net goal of zero, then IT should also have a net goal of its own. Let’s say it is related to IT [greenhouse gas] Emissions will increase by about 30% annually. Include renewable energy, data centers, the cloud, the digital workplace, data, and software in your Net Zero IT roadmap.

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