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An encouraging new conversation around sustainable IT, says Nordic CIO

What started as a whisper a decade ago has become distinctly audible chatter among IT leaders sharing best practices on how to protect the environment

“On the surface, you might think that the usage of IT has a positive impact on the environment due to less business travel and commuting to work,” writes Niklas Sundberg in his new book, Sustainable IT playbook for technology leaders, published in October 2022. As CIO of the Global Solutions division at Sweden’s Assa Abloy, Sundberg is well placed to write about sustainable IT. 

“While the benefits of the ICT industry are well known, the environmental impact has been kept secret – until very recently,” Sundberg tells Computer Weekly. “A common prediction is that worldwide, we will consume around 8,000TWh [terawatt hours] of electricity just on ICT by 2030. That will account for roughly 20% of the expected overall electricity usage – way up from the 3-4% of overall electricity used by the ICT sector in Europe today.” 

Much of the reason for the growing share of energy consumption by ICT has to do with the increasing sophistication of technology. Bitcoin is already a big user of energy, currently accounting for 0.5% of the total energy consumption. That is roughly the amount of energy used by the entire Czech Republic. And the picture is expected to worsen very quickly, with a new generation of compute-intensive applications – including autonomous vehicles, 6G, and improved machine learning algorithms.  

The ever-increasing demand for computing power is not the only cause for alarm – the need for data storage also contributes to the adverse environmental impact. Applications such as autonomous vehicles, coordinated drones and connected manufacturing will require a lot more sensors, which generate a lot more data – and more data means more storage. Not only does the new hardware require energy to run, but it also increases the amount of embedded carbon from the manufacturing process. 

Carbon emissions are not the only problem. E-waste is also rampant in ICT and is also a big part of the threat to sustainability.  

“The number of devices – including phones, IoT [internet of things] devices and sensors – is expected to reach nearly 60 billion by 2025,” says Sundberg. “In an article on the BBC, Victoria Gill wrote that the amount of electronic and electrical equipment discarded in 2021 weighed more than the Great Wall of China. This is roughly equivalent to 126,000 jumbo jets of e-waste. Every one of the devices uses rare minerals. Apple iPhones contain a higher percentage of gold than is found in gold ore in nature.

“Everybody is still learning. I thought it would be a good idea to share ideas with other IT leaders, so I put together a book proposal and sent it to several publishing houses. They came back within 24 hours saying it was right on the mark.” 

Nobody has all the answers, but now is the time to get all the questions out in the open. Sundberg’s book includes more than just his views; he also integrates the views of 20 other thought leaders. 

Sustainability as a differentiator 

“Employees, investors, customers and society at large are all starting to ask questions about the environmental impact of business activities,” says Sundberg. “Sustainability is becoming a real differentiator in the eyes of these key stakeholders. Employees want to work for a purposeful company that takes responsibility for the environment and social issues. And regulatory bodies have started to require corporations to report on their carbon footprints for investors and customers to see.”

In Europe, the EU (European Union) Taxonomy Regulation entered into force on 12 July 2020, requiring companies to report on emissions. In the US, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed new rules in March 2022 to enhance and standardise climate-related disclosures for investors. 

Regulators in the EU and the US rely on a set of international tools and standards, known as the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, to measure and manage climate-warming emissions. The GHG Protocol includes three different scopes for corporations to report greenhouse gas emissions. Scope 1 (direct) emissions occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organisation. Scope 2 (indirect) emissions are associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat or cooling. Scope 3 (indirect) includes all upstream emissions across the supply chain – everything from getting raw materials to manufacturing products and delivering them to your company, to the downstream emissions where a customer is consuming a product or a service. 

Read more about datacentre sustainability

According to Sundberg, the typical server has an 80/20 ratio of energy consumption. That means that 80% of its CO2 emissions occurs over a lifetime of four years, and 20% comes from the manufacturing process to make the server from raw materials. A typical laptop has the opposite ratio – 80% of the CO2 budget has already been spent in manufacturing and logistics, and 20% will be used over its lifetime. The ratio differs because servers are very energy-intensive to run. 

For the time being, IT leaders can have the biggest impact by running servers on renewable energy. The company then reports on energy consumption in scope 1 and scope 2 reporting. There is currently no requirement for scope 3 reporting, but that will change soon. Once it does, IT departments will have to be more selective about the embedded carbon in the products organisations buy. 

“In Europe, under the EU taxonomy, companies will have to start reporting on scope 3 by 2024, as part of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive [CSRD],” says Sundberg. “It’s going to be the same type of shock we saw with the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation]. By April next year, people will start realising that by January 2024 they need to start reporting on their CO2 emissions.”

According to Sundberg, on average, scope 3 emissions are 10 to 11 times higher than a company’s operational emissions (scopes 1 and 2). Organisations must make a serious effort to reduce their scope 3 emissions by demanding more from their supply chain partners, but also creating more circular products and solutions with much higher resource efficiency in terms of energy, water and waste. If they don’t, they are likely to fall short of the sustainability targets. 

Principles and key methods of sustainable IT practices 

Sundberg thinks people should go much further than what has traditionally been referred to as green IT. Their strategies should include three focus areas: sustainability in IT, sustainability by IT, and IT for society. Sustainability in IT is about sourcing products, components and services that use clean energy, recyclables, and regenerative design. Sustainability by IT is about using technology to support sustainable business models. IT for society is about using technology and expertise to impact society positively. 

“Within sustainability in IT, you can work with your datacentres and your cloud providers,” says Sundberg. “Look for ways to run your datacentres more efficiently, to consume less. Find out how you can ensure that your cloud providers are running on renewable energy, as opposed to fossil fuel. Look at sites like to see real-time data on carbon emission in countries around the world.

“If you just zoom in on Europe, for example, you will see that if you use a datacentre in Poland, the carbon intensity is 668 grams per kWh, which is very high. If you run the same workload in Sweden, intensity is 29 grams. Sweden is close enough to Poland to make the difference in latency negligible for most applications, which makes Sweden the clear choice when people start doing scope 3 reporting.”

Sundberg adds: “There is no such thing as 100% fossil-free energy, because you still have materials to create your windmill, your hydro parks, solar panels, and so forth. The lowest number I’ve seen so far is about 20 grams. You can see that by going from Poland to Sweden, we’re not just talking about halving the CO2 footprint. You can make a 20-fold improvement – or even a 30-fold improvement – just by making the right call on where you run your datacentre.”

Not everyone is aware of how much can be done to move a workload from one region to another. Google includes configuration options to set a policy to only run workloads in low-carbon mode. An increasing number of datacentre operators and cloud providers are looking to provide the same service. Because the choice will be part of scope 3 reporting, most companies will want to have the option, because it is part of their indirect emissions. 

“There is no such thing as 100% fossil-free energy, because you still have materials to create your windmill, your hydro parks, solar panels, and so forth”
Niklas Sundberg, Assa Abloy

Another way IT leaders can have an impact is by measuring the carbon intensity of the applications that are used within their company. Most large organisations have thousands of applications and can already get ahead by reducing the number of applications they use. Fewer applications require fewer resources from servers, storage devices and networks. They also use less energy and water and produce less waste. Reducing the number of applications is also a great way to reduce complexity, remove technical debt – and, importantly, simplify data compliance.  

“On any given individual application, promoting more sustainable software development is recommended,” says Sundberg. “There are studies to find out which are the most energy-efficient development languages. And the Green Software Foundation publishes guidelines on sustainable software development.

“As for hardware, you can apply the principles of ‘circular IT’. Today we consume hardware and throw it away after three or four years, instead of replacing batteries and upgrading memory. If it’s end-of-use in your company, you can give it away or sell it to an IT asset disposition vendor, who will wipe all the data, refurbish it, repurpose it and then resell it on the second-hand market. For every year you prolong the lifetime of your phone or your laptop, you reduce your CO2 emissions by 25%." 

Sundberg’s own company serves as a good example of sustainability in IT. Assa Abloy has been releasing reports every year since 2008 – and the company is into its third sustainability programme. A combination of goodwill and external pressure has helped it stay focused. One of the most recent external pressures was its commitment to the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTI).  

“To get approval, you have to establish the baseline in terms of how much you consume in scopes 1, 2, and 3 – and you have to submit it to the SBTI organisation for approval,” says Sundberg. “You also need to set a target for reducing your CO2 footprint and you need to explain how you plan to reach that target.”

As for sustainability by IT, one of the examples Sundberg provides in his book is Decathlon. The company realised that every bike it sells has 100kg of embedded CO2 – and children grow so quickly that they need to get a bigger bike almost every year. Decathlon came up with a subscription offer: instead of buying a bike, you can subscribe to bike-as-a-service. Its IT department helps to enable this model through applications that track bikes as they are recirculated. 

An example Sundberg gives on IT for society is, which commits 1% of its equity, technology and employee time to improving education, equality and the environment. Many other companies have implemented similar programmes. 

The growing discussion about sustainable IT 

Last year, sustainable IT was not on the agenda of meetings about technology, but now it is becoming a hot topic. Several non-profit organisations are surfacing to help empower technology leaders to curb the growing threat to sustainability – including CIOCO2, the Green Software Foundation, the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance and 

A growing number of IT leaders are excited about curbing emissions and e-waste – and most of them are eager to share their ideas. Sundberg urges IT leaders to continuously communicate progress with their teams, their entire organisation and outside stakeholders. This will help others to identify the best practices that will move the industry forward.  

The more we communicate and build awareness, the more we inspire other people.

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