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Davos 2020: Why IT sector must address climate issues

Climate change is set to be top of the agenda at the World Economic Forum, with Microsoft chief Satya Nadella declaring he aims to delete the company’s emissions

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: IT must play its part in tackling the climate crisis

At the launch of the 15th edition of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global risk report, Børge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, warned that climate change and environmental risks are the biggest threats facing society.

“The global risk picture is worrisome. The past five years have been the hottest ever. Climate change and environmental risks are increasing,” he said. 

He added that these are all long-term risks, and the planet continues to heat up, the ice caps are melting, and species are being wiped out. “The cost of inaction far exceeds the cost of action. Now is the time to implement policies for climate change,” he said.

A panel discussion prior at the launch of the report highlighted not only the dire risks of inaction, but also the challenges the world faces due to geopolitical pressure, which make it far harder to drive global carbon reduction policies. Due a lack of political will, the experts on the panel said that it was up to business leaders to drive the climate change agenda.

John Drzik, chairman of Marsh & McLennan Insights, said: “In the private sector, the business community needs to focus on risk and opportunities that stem on climate change.”

Drzik said businesses will not only need to assess how they become more resilient, such as looking into their supply chain risk, but they will also need to assess how environmental concerns is now playing a bigger role in consumer sentiment. “We strongly urge companies to evaluate the risk of climate change to their business,” he added.

Cleaning up IT

Every social media post and smartphone picture, every web interaction and every email sent and received uses a few processor cycles across a vast network of computers and networking devices that make up the public internet.

While small individually, each tiny interaction uses electricity, which, when taken as a whole across all internet activity globally, means that a huge amount of energy is being consumed every minute of every day.

Since all the processing needed to meet society’s expectations of the internet occurs in datacentres, the energy consumption of an individual internet user is hidden. Industry experts agree that as more people around the world gain access to connected devices and smartphone technology, the energy situation will continue to escalate.

Far from being a clean industry, the digital sector’s energy intensity is increasing at 4% per year, according to The Shift Project, a Paris-based think-tank on energy transition.

“The direct energy caused by $1 invested in digital technologies has increased by 37% since 2010,” according to the Lean ICT report, published in February 2019 by The Shift Project.

Datacentres are electro-intensive and, according to industry group TechUK, the UK’s commercial sector consumes 2.89TWh of power a year. In November 2019, TechUK’s UK datacentre sector energy routemap reported that while 75% of datacentre electricity is renewable, the industry uses air cooling, which releases heat into the environment.

Water is also being wasted, according to Matt Bradley, sustainability director at Capgemini, who spoke in October 2019 at the launch of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Helping businesses create a greener, more sustainable future report. He said a typical datacentre consumes 100,000 litres over five years.

As Computer Weekly previously reported, the TechUK study found that datacentre operators generally overcommit to the grid as a primary energy source and make extensive use of diesel generators as backup. There is also limited battery usage across the sector, according to TechUK.

The areas TechUK urged datacentre operators to focus on include finding ways to reduce overall reliance on the grid and become a more dynamic player in the energy market.

“Onsite generation at scale is not yet happening in the UK. Elsewhere, some operators are taking datacentres off grid altogether and are developing facilities in tandem with the generating capacity they need, independent of the grid,” the report stated.

TechUK also urged the IT industry to encourage organisations to treat their in-house datacentres as business units, so that operational costs are transparent and performance is monitored, and so it supports the consolidation of distributed IT.

Microsoft to delete emissions

In the run up to the WEF, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that Microsoft would take the unprecedented step to reverse the entire carbon footprint of the company since it was started in 1975, representing 45 years of emissions.

The goal is to make the company carbon negative by 2030, which includes reducing carbon across the Microsoft supply chain. By 2050, he said Microsoft would aim to remove all the emissions it has generated, either directly or through the use of electricity since its formation in 1975.

“The start of a new decade is a time to reflect, set intentions and move forward with bold ambitions, said Nadella. “As we consider the opportunities and challenges facing us today, as we work to empower the seven billion people on the planet, we must redefine what achieve more means.”

But he warned that the past decade has shown that technology built without the principles of inclusiveness, trust and sustainability does more harm than good.

“As corporations, our purpose and actions must be aligned to helping solve the world’s problems, not create new ones,” he added.

Along with ambitions that include building artificial intelligence (AI) responsibly, working to make privacy a human right and keeping customers safe from cyber threat, Nadella said: “We must offset the damaging effects of climate change. Each of us is going to need to take actions, and that includes businesses.”

He said that no one company can solve the macro challenge of climate change alone. “As a global technology company, we have a particular responsibility to do our part,” he added.

Read more about Green ICT

  • Cloud computing is driving the government’s IT and sustainable tech strategy, but cloud and hosting providers are unable to divulge emissions data.
  • In this CW500 club video, Mattie Yeta, sustainability lead at Defra, talks about ethics and sustainability in IT and what this means to IT leaders.
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