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Interview: Comms sector ripe for disruption as climate change takes hold

Humanity has just 12 years left to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5⁰C and prevent climate meltdown. Paul Dickinson from the Carbon Disclosure Project discusses how CIOs can help take steps to avert disaster by changing their attitude to business communications

Time is fast running out to prevent catastrophic, irreversible climate meltdown, and there is no backup planet for us to move to. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just 12 years left to take drastic action to keep global average temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5⁰C.

While action on climate is now a clear personal responsibility for everybody, the actions of individuals to reduce their carbon emissions amount to virtually nothing in comparison to the action – or inaction – of large enterprises.

There can be no sugar-coating the issue any more – enterprises are the true villains of the piece. Whether a large agribusiness farming cattle for consumption, an airline flying millions around the world or a big box retailer that leaves all its lights on every night, there is no getting away from the fact that businesses pollute on a scale unimaginable to the average person.

In the technology industry, the narrative around climate change prevention has centred largely on datacentres. This makes complete sense because the modern datacentre is one of the most visible manifestations of the tech industry, and their vast power and cooling requirements make them an attractive target for climate activism, so taking steps to make them carbon neutral and sustainable is an easy win for tech businesses.

More recently, activists have begun to focus on bitcoin mining, which is already thought to consume more energy that the entire country of Austria through intense use of computer processing power alone.

However, while datacentres represent big businesses and “innovative” technology such as bitcoin captures the public’s imagination, there are many other parts of the ICT stack that are ripe for disruption.

One such area is telephony and communications, where the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an environmental non-profit organisation, is working alongside the likes of Cisco to raise awareness of how taking new approaches to internal and external communications and collaboration can slash an organisation’s carbon emissions.

Institutional investors

Since the year 2000, the CDP has been encouraging businesses to disclose information related to their carbon footprint to stakeholders, and take steps to reduce their carbon emissions.

“We recognised 18 years ago that climate change was going to fundamentally change the way the world does business and we could see investors didn’t necessarily have the information they needed to work out who were going to be the winners and losers, who was taking the right action and who wasn’t,” says Paul Dickinson, executive chair of the CDP.

“We approached investors and asked if we could represent them in a collective information request to corporations on climate change to get data, which is what they did.”

Even in the face of scepticism, the initiative was an immediate success. Just 12 months in, says Dickinson, the organisation represented 35 institutional investors controlling $4tn (£3.1tn) worth of assets, and, at the time of writing, it represents investors with more than $80tn worth of assets across 7,000 corporations, producing highly relevant, actionable data that is shared widely around the world.

Although there are no jurisdictions (yet) in which it has been made a legal requirement to disclose information to the CDP specifically, the fact that it is trusted by so many of the world’s largest investors and enterprises, alongside endorsement from the United Nations and figures such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and former US president Bill Clinton, means the information it supplies to the markets carries a great deal of weight.

Dematerialising transport

At the heart of the argument Dickinson makes in favour of collaboration technology is that it can help “dematerialise” some of the more polluting parts of society. What does he mean by this?

“I’m a very big fan of dematerialised economic growth,” he says. “My newspaper, for example, was once made of paper, a van delivered it, I would read it and throw it away. Now I tap my phone and the FT appears. That’s dematerialisation.

“The biggest economic opportunity for dematerialisation is transport substitution. By eliminating commuting for non-manual workers to offices or for meetings, vast emissions reductions can be achieved. And because we have seen step-changes in the improvement of quality and interoperability of collaboration tools, there’s now a way to do it.”

Collaboration just makes sense

The CDP’s own use of collaboration technology, and latterly Cisco’s WebEx suite, started almost from day one, thanks as much to the nature of the organisation as to environmental concerns. It just made sense, says Dickinson.

“We started out with scant resources … and it rapidly became apparent that we needed to communicate with investors and companies around the world without having the means to travel, so early on we reached out to Cisco and asked if they could help,” he says.

“We use WebEx five to 10 times a day, often more, with a particular focus on inter-office communication to avoid pulling in a bunch of people. That really drove it – the world is too big and we are too small to do what we do without collaboration technology.”

Cultural change and cost-cutting

Traditionalists will no doubt argue that a face-to-face business meeting will always accomplish far more than a telephone call, and it is these devotees of old-fashioned networking who Dickinson is particularly keen to reach, by appealing not to their inner environmentalist, but to their inner slacker.

“People say telepresence is not as good as face-to-face, and that’s sort of true, but surely it’s better to avoid taxis in the middle of the night, airport security, hotels, jetlag and cost,” he says. “On one side is the convenience of being in the room surrounded by the massive inconvenience of getting there; on the other side is better technology that gives you a choice.”

After all, working from home to fit around family commitments, and to improve your overall quality of life, has long been widely acceptable in many industries, so it is not too much of a stretch to apply similar principles to business travel as well.

But there is more to it than quality of life. Cost, too, has become a massive issue for many businesses in the past 10 years. Many of the world’s largest corporations, including the likes of Amazon, no longer allow employees to fly in First or Business Class on their company expenses. But Economy tickets don’t come for free, so with an appropriate collaboration solution in place, another cost centre can be quickly removed.

Read more about climate change and technology

“I actually think one of the most powerful cases for using collaboration technology is cost,” says Dickinson. “If you have to fly to the other side of the world to speak at a conference, you can be spending hundreds of dollars a minute to appear on stage, but if you can talk via telepresence it’s basically free.”

The cost benefits of collaboration will become even greater – and the social cost of not flying around the world to shake hands at a conference will, hopefully, lessen – as adoption of collaboration technology increases. Dickinson says he is already seeing this kind of snowball effect in many businesses as more and more people wake up to the possibilities.

“Really, we want people to just pause before booking a physical meeting and all the attendant travel that entails, and for it to be more acceptable to say why don’t we just do it over WebEx?”

Collaboration technology alone will not save the human race from the worst effects of climate change, but as part of a structural effort to reform the global economy to prepare for a low carbon future, it is clear that it does have an important role to play.

“We have to make the most massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dickinson. “Lives will not be the same either way, but at this point we can still influence the future we end up with. There’s just a vast amount of work to be done. We can, we must, and we will.”

Read more on Unified communications

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