This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
You might think that our increasingly digital world – geared around having and using less ‘stuff’ – is making a positive impact on the environment. Not so, says Eric Zie, CEO of climate-tech startup GoCodeGreen.
‘Digital access to products and services accelerates growth and demand’, Eric says – ‘we just keep needing more stuff, faster.’
Software runs our digital lives and businesses, but we use lots of energy to build it and need hardware, data centres and networks to keep it running. Materials are required for construction and operation, energy is required to keep the background tech going and data is required to make the software useful.
‘That’s why the numbers associated with information and communications technology, the ICT sector, are so huge’, Eric explains. ’1.4 billion tonnes CO2e, or 2.5% of global emissions, in 2020 – and consuming 4% of global energy. That’s the same as all the pre-Covid air travel taken in the world in a year. Because digital is not a physical product it seems ‘invisible’, and as a result the environmental costs are hidden.’
To bring these numbers to life, Eric uses the example of Baby Shark Dance – two familiar minutes of high definition content that became the most streamed video in YouTube’s history, with 11 billion views.
‘The environmental cost? 22,688 tonnes of CO2e came from the energy used to run those streams. 1.1 million trees would be needed to sequester that amount of carbon. For something that really should never ever have existed in the first place,’ Eric says, half-jokingly, ‘that is a real and very big impact.’
That impact is from just one of the countless videos that goes viral. As Eric puts it: ‘No wonder the world is burning.’
Eric, ‘a positive agitator and a disrupter’, sees his generation as part of the cause of the climate crisis and feels a personal motivation to be part of the solution.
‘I want to use technology to do better’, he explains. ‘We live in a digital world and I love all that brings – empowerment, information, convenience and knowledge – but we believe we can help shift mindsets and culture to build more carbon-efficient software products and make a material difference to reducing the carbon cost of digital.’
Tech giants are beginning to acknowledge the sector’s giant carbon footprint and some are taking steps to reduce it – but Eric warns the approach to date doesn’t go far enough.
‘We must reject the idea that powering data centres with renewable energy sources simply makes the problem go away’, he says. ‘It doesn’t. Companies cannot achieve net zero without addressing the scope 3 emissions in their technology supply chain, which means decarbonising their digital capabilities. They have to act, and they need to start with measurement.’
Eric launched GoCodeGreen – a ‘lockdown baby’ that still operates as a completely virtual business – to help measure and reduce the environmental impact of software. The company’s philosophy is based on reduction and efficiency; it seeks intelligent and efficient ways of doing things that reduce the need to produce energy in the first place, then designs and builds carbon-efficient software that not only lowers energy use, but also extends the lifespan of the embodied carbon in devices and the infrastructure needed to run the software.
No company can begin to improve the efficiency of its tech and software without getting to grips with its impact.
Academia is peppered with studies that attempt to do just this; analysis from The University of Cambridge revealed that the annual impact of producing and mining Bitcoin came to 22 million tonnes of CO2e; around 1 billion trees would be required to sequester that much carbon.
Similarly, MIT research analysed the energy performance of Transformer, a deep machine learning model often used across neural networks for things like natural language processing, and revealed a single training cycle uses the energy equivalent to producing 203 tonnes of CO2e. Around 9,000 trees would be needed to sequester that much carbon.
‘The big challenge is that until now it has been difficult to run consistent and repeatable studies like these at scale’, Eric explains, ‘and that’s why we created GoCodeGreen. By measuring we have a foundation to inform change. By providing actions to improve energy and carbon efficiency for a software product that has been assessed we can help organisations to bring those costs down. In our first round of assessments, we have seen opportunities to reduce carbon impact by up to 56%. That can quickly add up to huge savings.’
GoCodeGreen has taken the complexity of the GHG Protocol ICT Sector Guidance and codified it so the company can assess any software product. It has already completed assessments across websites, mobile apps, full stack applications, AI and data analytics platforms and SaaS solutions.
The company has assessed some really high-performing, carbon-efficient applications, and even those had further room for improvement.
The good news is that the assessments don’t take long and results-based recommendations are usually delivered within a fortnight.
‘On average we are seeing clients are able to gather the data points we need to complete our assessment with half a day’s effort for three or four key roles in their organisation’, Eric reveals. ‘The data entry into our digital assessment takes up to 45 minutes to an hour. Hit ‘submit’ and we do all the work, running our calculations and generating a report that details the carbon emissions, actions and baseline position for the product assessed. We deliver the report to the client after quality checking, and usually within two weeks.’
Across the 30 software products it has assessed to date, GoCodeGreen has calculated its build-related recommendations have saved the equivalent of just under 20 million kWh of energy.
‘Using 2021 UK electricity pricing, we estimated this to be around £3.75m of savings’, Eric tells us, ‘so it makes complete economic and environmental sense to measure and take action if you are a digital-first business.’
In addition to cost savings, a big benefit for any organisation is the motivational value created by a contribution to the ESG agenda. ‘The feedback from engineering teams has been super positive’, Eric says; ‘they feel engaged and able to contribute. The opportunity to learn new sustainable engineering skills can also be personally rewarding.’
Decarbonising a businesses can add customer value, too; being able to show that action is being taken to reduce the carbon impact of delivering products and services can really make a business stand out at a time when people are increasingly concerned about the impacts of climate change.
18 months ago, awareness of sustainable software engineering techniques was almost non-existent in the mainstream – but today Eric is beginning to see real interest and amuch broader sense of awareness.
‘I see eyes light up when I speak at coding events’, he shares; ‘I can feel a growing desire to know more and to take action. But the reality is that much more needs to happen – we must invest in education, measurement and action – and it needs to come from the engineering community as well as from the leaders in a company.’
The beauty of software is that there is no real physical manufacturing process, so engineers are completely free to make changes and improve code performance as and when they choose.
This flexibility creates opportunities for rapid change – at any stage in the development lifecycle.
‘By measuring and baselining we provide the information to allow improvement that can happen at design stage, in build or retrospectively’, Eric explains. ‘Not all actions need to be taken at once; it’s OK to take a balanced view and run improvements over time. By going through the GoCodeGreen process you will know what you are changing, which levers to pull to drive efficiency and set targets and track performance. That allows for actionable and sustainable software development and smart, energy-aware technology choices that will underpin your digital offering.’
Improving the efficiency of data caching, reducing the size of images and removing unnecessary or frivolous features can all help to reduce the carbon footprint of a website, as well as stripping back what Eric describes as 60 years of ‘increasingly lazy’ software development. ‘A generalisation yes, but the term ‘bloatware’ exists for a reason’, he says.
There are few limits to digitalisation and, for Eric, there should be no limits to where change and improvements in the energy demands of software can be effected.
He has set his sights on businesses in areas of the world where the impact of climate change will hit hardest first. Often these are the same areas where access to education, gender inequality and poverty are also serious problems.
‘We want to help bring sustainable software engineering to the next generation, women and girls in IT and coders in those regions and use our knowledge, experience and platform to help them where we can’, Eric says.
The goal is for GoCodeGreen to be part of the challenge in a digital world, to help accelerate action before the window of opportunity closes and we lose the power to make a difference.
‘We have no time’, Eric says. ‘We are at a clear junction where the pathways lead to very different destinations. We need more urgency, and for big organisations to adapt and evolve their decision-making to get to the point of action faster.’