This article first appeared in our COP26 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 05 November 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Pollution is something we have always had to deal with. From human waste to fossil fuels, pesticides to landfill, progress has ultimately always come at a cost to the planet.
Digital transformation has accelerated over the last 18 months, adding digital pollution to the environmental damage we are causing.
Today, as we stand on the brink of a climate emergency, we must also accept the environmental impact that going digital has had on our planet, and understand the action we must take to minimise our footprint in the future.
Measuring the digital revolution
On the face of it, the transition to digital – along with the shift to remote or hybrid working – can improve an organisation’s environmental impact, primarily through reduced commuting and lower energy use inside the office.
A recent study found that by reducing commuting hours and consolidating real estate through sustainable IT practices, remote work could help reduce annual CO2 emissions by 214 million tonnes.
However, it is only by applying sustainability principles to the entire business – across every department, territory and job role – that we can gain a full understanding of how technology choices contribute, often unintentionally, to digital pollution.
As we move forward into a hybrid work scenario, organisations increasingly need to assess the impact of staff working at home, and balance the environmental cost of maintaining scarcely used office space.
As a technology business, Citrix recognises the leading role we must play in helping to tackle the global digital pollution situation. It is our mission to create technology that drives productivity and engagement, while also helping to reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint.
We therefore felt it was time to measure the damage the digital revolution is having on our planet and society, and set a benchmark for future progress.
Digital pollution in a hybrid world
Digital pollution refers to the environmental impact caused by building, delivering and using IT and digital infrastructure, which has mushroomed over the last 18 months due to remote working on a grand scale.
According to some estimates, digital pollution is currently responsible for approximately 3.7% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – similar to the amount produced by the airline industry – and every year energy consumption from digital technology increases by 9%.
Digital progress has allowed us to consider a hybrid future, but remote work on such a grand scale is bringing with it unanticipated side-effects for the planet.
A single internet request represents 7g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and sending or receiving an email emits 4g of CO2e.
The good news is that our research reveals 42% of IT leaders are currently tracking the environmental impact of their employees working remotely, with a further 39% of respondents planning to do so.
Businesses are on the right path
Positively, our survey of 500 IT leaders in UK businesses with 250 or more employees reveals that almost two-thirds (62%) believe their organisations are advanced on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) journeys.
Of these, 27% are also helping their clients to become more sustainable as part of their business models. Only 11% of IT leaders say their businesses are in the early stages of their ESG journey, and a mere 1% are yet to begin evaluating and changing their ESG processes.
Ultimately, having a good score for their ESG policies and practices will help businesses to minimise their digital pollution. ESG is rapidly evolving, and although initially a focus for investors, today it is on the radar of employees, regulators and everyone involved in the business ecosystem.
There is also growing evidence that companies performing on ESG practices have higher financial growth, lower volatility, higher employee productivity, reduced regulatory and legal interventions, top-line growth and cost reductions.
Of the organisations that have started their ESG journeys, 88% say the IT team supports the business with their ESG reporting and provides input, which is a crucially important factor in exposing digital pollution.
When compiling ESG reporting, 45% have in-built mechanisms that track the carbon emissions of the full lifecycle of products or devices they manufacture or services they deliver based on typical average usage over an average product or device lifespan, while a further 51% estimate the emissions.