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Defra releases sustainable IT strategy

Defra’s sustainable IT strategy seeks to help government and private organisations maximise the benefits of sustainability, with an overall mission to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has released it’s sustainable IT strategy, outlining how it will work in partnership with government, industry and other actors to build a “green and healthy future”.

To achieve the vision of making “our air purer, water cleaner, land greener and food more sustainable”, Defra has committed to adopting five strategic objectives.

These are to reduce and mitigate carbon emissions and achieve net-zero by 2025, reduce waste through efficient resource use and achieve zero IT waste to landfill annually, demonstrate transparency and mitigate risk through sustainable procurement, make sustainability business as usual, and provide net gains for the environment.

According to the Defra Group strategy document, taking this sustainability approach will allow it to “deliver the ambitions of the Defra group plan; reduce the amount of natural resources we consume and purchase, while achieving savings; improve the sustainability of the supply chain; increase the resilience of corporate services; and ensure that we protect the organisation from sustainability risk”.

It added close collaboration between different stakeholders is “central to delivering this vision”, as well as to “achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and implement the UK Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan”.

The strategy is intended for use by a wide variety of IT actors, including Defra staff, ICT managers and architects, ICT users, ICT suppliers and supply chains, manufacturers, disposers, recyclers and other interested stakeholders.

“We believe that our ambitious internal action to achieve net-zero, improve reuse and provide net gains for the environment will drive national and international influence,” the strategy document added.

A Defra report from January 2019 on Greening government IT said departments across the UK government had managed to significantly reduce staff members’ individual energy footprints to 891KWh/staff, from a baseline figure of 1467 KWh/staff.

The report added, however, that there are significant challenges remaining and that is it important for departments to begin measuring their own progress on sustainable IT. According to Defra’s chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at the time, John Seglias, the report highlighted the need to do more to support staff in how to get the most out of new technologies and what they have to offer.

The current CDIO at Defra (and the senior responsible officer for the cross-governmental Green ICT Delivery Unit), Chris Howes, referred to the “five strategic objectives” during the inaugural Climate Action: Net Zero by 2050 conference on 2 July 2020, which was co-organised by Defra and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“The pillar I want to call out is making sustainability business as usual – once you get this right, you get all the pillars, in our view,” he said, adding sustainability will be part of every decision Defra makes going forward.

“Whether that’s in commercial decision-making or whether it’s in terms of technology choices, we need expertise, we also need to instil this view that sustainability is everybody’s business.”

To help this along, Defra has now made climate action and sustainability a core part of its contractual relationships with suppliers.

“Rather than a ‘nice to have’, we are making it a core part of contracted solutions, whether that’s in software, hardware, infrastructure or in product,” said Howes.

He added that “sustainable IT is almost a missed opportunity within the technology sector, [but] the opportunity… capacity and technology is there” to make the changes.

“Findings from the World Economic Forum… concluded that digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%, or one-third of the 50% reduction required by 2030, through solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings and services, and transportation and traffic management,” he said, adding that the current pandemic has demonstrated how technology can be a force for good, as well as a strategic enabler for reducing our impact on the environment.

In its December 2018 policy paper, Greening government: Sustainable technology strategy 2020, Defra warned the proliferation of digital technology and data services, coupled with the globalisation of service supply, means people are often unaware of the sustainability impact of the online services they may be using.

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