Digital pollution

Gerard Lavin, Field CTO, EMEA at Citrix, explains the impact of a hybrid world of work

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Published: 5 November 2021

This Article was Written by: Contributor

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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.

Environmental impacts of digital solutions

IT leaders are responsible for the selection and management of the technology devices and applications their company and workforce use, which puts them in a strong position to make sustainable choices.

According to our study, over one-third (37%) of IT leaders consider the environmental impact of the digital solutions they provide to their customers ‘to a large extent’. However, 54% only do so to ‘some extent’, and it’s only considered in some departments across their business.

Furthermore, our survey finds that when considering a purchase, just 19% of IT leaders think about whether it will support their existing environmental goals, with price (56%) and ‘functionality and performance’ (52%) emerging as the top two priorities.

End-of-life practices for products and services, and the associated data, are just as important when it comes to minimising a company’s digital pollution. It is therefore pleasing that 78% of enterprises report always or often disposing of their IT solutions in a sustainable way.

The role of cloud technologies

Not all cloud technologies are equal, and a sustainable cloud journey begins with the selection of a carbon-thoughtful provider.

Our study finds that over two-fifths of respondents (44%) say their organisation accesses and manages data and applications using a hybrid cloud model; just 15% use public cloud exclusively and 27% are still reliant on a private cloud.

Of those who use the cloud in some capacity, 61% of their data and applications are hosted or managed in the cloud.

Of those who use hybrid cloud or public cloud, on average, roughly half (49%) of the data and applications are running within public clouds provided by the hyperscale players such as Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google.

This is the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly way of hosting and managing IT infrastructure, since large technology companies have led the charge to powering their data centres with renewable energy.

Google, for example, is the largest non-utility investor in renewable energy in the world, and Microsoft has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030.

According to Accenture, migrations to the public cloud can reduce CO2 emissions by 59 million tonnes per year, which equates to taking 22 million cars off the road. Clearly a green, public cloud strategy is an important step in minimising digital pollution.

Green IT and employee engagement

Sustainable IT practices involve striking a careful balance between selecting technology that drives productivity and growth while helping to minimise an organisation’s carbon footprint. Employees are very aware of the climate crisis and are showing increasing preference for working for organisations that support their own green credentials.

In recent years there has been a notable increase in demand for purpose-led jobs and roles at sustainable businesses, and increasingly, taking steps to reduce carbon footprint will become an important element of attracting and retaining talent.

Educating all employees in digital pollution will become an important component of hybrid work. Our survey finds that 92% of responding organisations already provide training around sustainability practices and processes.

Additionally, 40% say their organisation provides regular formal training, while 38% say their organisation provides infrequent training, and 14% have had one-off training provided.

Cleaning up our digital footprint

As hybrid and remote working practices continue to evolve, it is critical that businesses take stock of their environmental impact. While our research findings are promising, there is much work still to do to improve sustainability within business, and to ensure green practices are rolled out across whole organisations, rather than just in pockets.

We need to establish these practices as the norm rather than the outlier. Technology has a key role to play in reducing our impact on the planet, which means it is critical that IT leaders are careful to make sustainable choices and investments.

These choices will not only affect how sustainable the IT leaders’ own IT infrastructure is; as all businesses become increasingly digital, making greener IT choices will result in overall greener businesses.

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