In this guest post to mark Earth Day 2022, Yann Lechelle, CEO of French cloud provider Scaleway, sets out why tackling climate change requires a three-pronged approach.
With each passing day, the climate emergency deepens. As exemplified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) April 2022 report. It stated that, to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting climate increases to 1.5°C, emissions need to be reduced by 35% before 2030, and peak by 2025. In other words, we only have three years left to mitigate this climate crisis.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. As the WWF’s Stephanie Roe recently observed, although greenhouse gasses have increased by 10% since 2020, 50% of these emissions can be reduced by (relatively new) the adoption of electric cars or wind power, with the cost of both falling in recent years.
For these solutions to be effective, they need to be deployed in a holistic, comprehensive manner that involves the whole of society, rather than powering isolated quick fixes that help a select few.
Or, as Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers puts it, “we need to build a global citizenry fluent in the concept of climate change and inspired by environmental education to act in defence of the planet.”
In other words, all of us must drive growth in tandem with positive social and environmental impacts, as opposed to looking to neutralise our negative impact. That means leading responsibly now to ensure climate awareness turns into climate action now, while also empowering and educating future generations, so this impetus is carried forwards for many years to come.
In simple terms, successfully limiting climate change will require fruitful collaboration between people, planet and technology, as detailed below.
People: The individual can have impact
“What can I do as an individual?” It’s an often-heard question from those who feel powerless faced with a crisis that calls for global, collective action. Yet a new word in April’s IPCC report — sobriety — points to numerous ways individuals can collectively make a difference. By adopting a more energy-sober lifestyle. Using fewer fossil fuels by cycling or using electric cars, and fighting deforestation by planting trees – to name just two examples — we could reduce our emissions by 40-70%, says the IPCC.
Earth Day organises countless events worldwide so individuals can join forces to make a difference together. These include Clean-Ups, where groups gather locally throughout the world to rid their local beaches, woods or other natural spaces of plastic pollution. It’s even possible to calculate the plastic pollution you generate yourself, before deciding to take part in a Clean-Up.
These are just one of 52 initiatives listed by Earth Day whereby individuals can make a difference. Others include asking your local authorities for green power, such as solar panels; avoiding fast fashion by only purchasing from brands with a proven responsible track record, or by only buying second-hand clothes; using environmentally friendly cleaning products; or eating more responsibly.
For example, eating less meat indirectly reduces the amount of methane emitted by animals, and methane accounts for around 20% of global warming, just after carbon dioxide.
Then, of course, there’s each individual’s use of technology. Did you know, for example, that an internet box uses as much electricity as a refrigerator? Yet unlike a refrigerator, your food won’t go off if you turn it off each night. Or that each request made via a search engine uses as much energy as a lightbulb switched on for up to two minutes?
So if you know a site’s address, type it straight into your browser, not into a search engine.
Planet: Worldwide mobilisation should include companies
Acting on the above topics will help reduce individuals’ impact on the planet. And in the most successful cases, this action can have historical impact. Oceanic Global’s Léa Doriol, for example, was instrumental in stopping global usage of plastic straws, a major contributor to marine pollution, and the death of countless sea animals.
Obviously, not everyone can bring about such momentous change, but we can all act to make sure the most responsible models are leveraged, to drive society towards a more sustainable future.
Take companies, for example. It’s often reported that 90% of millennials refuse to work for non-sustainable organisations. But how can they be sure the firm they’re about to start working for is truly committed to reducing its carbon footprint?
Firstly, by checking whether the company already publishes an Impact Report, which evaluates its corporate social responsibility initiatives, on an annual basis. From 2023, this will be obligatory for all European companies with more than 250 employees, and revenues of over €40m, or assets over €20m. So, if a company is already doing this, that’s a good sign.
Secondly, by asking whether it takes sustainability to an employee level, for example by working to stop food waste in its canteen or by offering incentives to use more sustainable mobility options, like cycling or public transport. Do these employers provide opportunities to invest in greener financial products, cleantech startups, or carbon reduction initiatives?
Finally, and just as importantly, does the company take diversity seriously at all levels? When we consider the last IPCC report pointed out that 45% of pollution comes from the world’s wealthiest 10%, the link between society and sustainability becomes quite clear. If we are not all equally empowered to generate growth, how can that growth be sustainable?
For example, less than 20% of people working in the technology sector are women. How can it be sustainable to ignore over 50% of the global population? And on top of that to pay women less than men, across the board? Your next employer should therefore be able to prove it favours diversity, for example with quotas, or by making double the usual efforts to hire women as opposed to men. Similar initiatives should apply to cultural diversity. Female leaders from more diverse backgrounds may have better ideas for limiting global warming than the white male executives that dominate so many sectors today.
Technology: Innovation should also favour sobriety
It is claimed 4% of greenhouse gasses are caused by the digital sector. That’s more, for example, than aviation. Furthermore, that impact is invisible, notably because expressions like “the cloud” evoke something immaterial, that can’t possibly harm the planet. But it does.
Datacentres, the server-packed warehouses through which most digital activity transits today, use 1% of the world’s electricity, and nearly 3% of Europe’s. Not to mention water: many datacentres in the Netherlands, for example, use millions of gallons of drinking water to cool their servers. Which is why all cloud providers should be asked about their power and water consumption, as low scores on both fronts mean they’re serious about limiting their environmental impact.
But it’s not the only indicator. You can also ask about the lifespan of the servers in their datacentres, with 3 to 4 years being the industry average. But servers can be used for up to a decade, if maintained correctly.
Material reuse is also increasingly common throughout the broader IT sector. Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE), for example, repurposes and remarkets 85-90% of its products, and only throws away 0.5%. Why is this important? Because 15-30% of the carbon impact of a server comes from its manufacturing, according to Dell.
Reusing a computer or server instead of buying one can save the equivalent of half a tonne of carbon dioxide, which is a comparable impact to the average use of a petrol car over six months.
In short, technology isn’t just about making shiny new things; it’s about how to reduce the impact of existing products. Especially as some are way more impactful than others.
At least 90% of a smartphone’s impact on the planet, for example, comes from its manufacturing. Way more than that of computers, because telephones today contain a host of rare elements and components, including cobalt in batteries, which is often sourced through child labour in Africa. Reminding us again how technology impacts society as well as the planet.
Companies like French unicorn Back Market are currently working to change habits in this sector. The company’s second-hand gadget platform encourages us to consider the impact of our hankering for shiny new things, and to reduce it by purchasing reconditioned devices. Why? Because aside from the carbon impact, buying a reused phone saves 83% of water compared with buying a new one, amongst countless other arguments.
Clearly, reducing technology’s impact on the planet also requires careful individual decisions, and questioning received ideas. For example, are all artificial intelligence (AI) models necessary, when training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five petrol cars in their lifetimes?
Is Bitcoin a wise cryptocurrency investment, when its mining uses almost as much energy as a country like Australia? Are hybrid cars really a solution, when their increased weight means they can use more petrol per kilometre than a standard car?
Fortunately, and as suggested initially, new technology is conceived every day which can help address climate change. Sometimes, even, by accident. Scientists at Drexel University in Philadelphia have just stumbled upon a way to prolong the lifespan of lithium-sulfur batteries, a more sustainable technology than today’s broadly-used lithium-ion ones.
These new batteries will weigh a third of the equivalent lithium-ion batteries and have twice their lifespan. Which opens up the possibility of electric vehicles with autonomies of thousands of kilometres.
These are just some of the ways people, planet and technology can come together to help ease the climate emergency. There are, of course, many more. But Earth Day should encourage us to think “impact first”, year-round. We only have a few years left to make a difference; but achieving concrete change is within our reach if we work together. We must not grow tired of reaching for a better future.