According to the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME), the digital industry accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The increase in digital usage suggests that this carbon footprint will double by 2025. As it stands, how can we overcome the misuse of digital technology, both individually and collectively, within organizations?
According to Green IT, 60 to 80% of the digital industry's environmental footprint is related to equipment if we include the impacts associated with the production of electricity they consume (excluding electrical boxes/fiber). To change this trend, a sustainable digital industry requires the integration of new, more ethical practices.
Sobriety, Responsibility, and... Reality
On November 15, 2021, the President of the French Republic announced Law No. 2021-1485, aimed at reducing the digital industry's environmental footprint in France. This law incorporates into legislation the work carried out by the Committee on Planning and Sustainable Development's research mission which was carried out between December 2019 and October 2020. It "aims to guide the behavior of all digital actors, be they consumers, industry professionals, or public actors, to ensure the development of a sober, responsible, and environmentally ethical digital industry in France."
"In reality, there are no reliable indicators to identify what a sustainable digital industry is. As a result, it is a fantasy that is multifaceted, poorly-understood, and poorly-identified," say Fanny Rabouille, Head of the Big Data MS program and Co-Holder of the Digital, Organization & Society (DOS) Chair (DOS), and Pierre Dal Zotto, Professor of Information Systems and Innovation and Coordinator of the DOS Chair. As a result, the challenge is not only to measure the use of digital tools, but also to encourage everyone to use them responsibly, be that in their personal or professional lives."
The first observation is that 80% of the digital industry's carbon footprint comes from equipment production and marketing. "So, it's not so much the use of digital tools but the manufacturing of them which generates CO2. Also, the less we renew our devices, the more we adopt a sustainable behavior in digital matters," underscore Fanny Rabouille and Pierre Dal Zotto.
Another observation: "Network equipment consumes the most. As such, the challenge is to ensure that employee consumption is encrypted; to manage data confidentiality; to make cyber security tools reliable etc. Because digital sustainability also has a social and economic dimension. In addition, whether or not networks are being used they consume an equal amount of energy, since there is a direct correlation between the latter and the number of relay antennas. This is why efficient and sustainable consumption management must involve the implementation of strong public policies."
The Obstacles Facing Digital Sustainability
There are currently 38 billion digital devices in the world," note Fanny Rabouille and Pierre Dal Zotto. Recycling terminals should be a condition for sustainability. More specifically, within organizations, sustainable digital technology should be based on policies organized around sustainability, from design to device recycling, which would make it possible to indefinitely counteract built-in obsolescence, the first obstacle to the sustainability of tools.
Beyond that, it is a matter of adopting, on an individual and collective level, new consumer behaviors: switching off network equipment outside of working hours or extending equipment life in a context where a return to remote work is encouraged. And, in the future, where remote work should be a new managerial order for organizations...
IT Charters: A Prerequisite
"Within organizations, establishing an IT Charter is a good start, experts say. Encouraging people to reflect email use and using multiple file storage rather than well-configured backups can be a start. Beyond that, every company's goal should be to measure its digital footprint before taking actions without a concrete basis. There are tools that allow you to measure the digital industry's impact by evaluating its servers' consumption. However, we don't yet know how to measure this precisely," say Fanny Rabouille and Pierre Dal Zotto.
Moreover, the IT Charter is normative, whereas data consumption must be correlated to the company's activity, inactivity, development, etc. Therefore, the network and equipment must be managed accordingly. Do they need to be connected 24/7 or not? And if so, what is their consumption?
Some Key Points to Note…
- 5G will be 90% more efficient than 4G.
- Preserving equipment life and plugging devices in only when needed is the most useful first step.
- Finally, using the cloud is in itself not the best idea: it is simply someone else's computer. While data centers are making progress in optimizing energy consumption, the challenge for cloud providers is to pool network infrastructures to increase efficiency in non-critical areas.