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People, planet, profit – and IT

Dr Justin Sutton-Parker, CEO of Px3, explains how a business can save the planet and make a profit while satisfying its people
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This article first appeared in our COP28 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 30 November 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

With 4.2 billion computer users in the world it’s no surprise that manufacturers are racing to keep up with demand for new devices; over 665 million personal computing devices – such as notebooks, desktops, tablets and displays – are produced every year to satisfy our appetite for technology.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the environmental impact of computer production and consumption creates over 1% of global annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In a real world context, we’d need a forest the size of Argentina – every year – to remove that much carbon from our atmosphere.

Climate change 101

We know that climate change is driven by global warming caused by GHGs, which saturate the atmosphere and reduce its ability to transfer heat back into space.

Instead our atmosphere, now ‘thickened’ by human activity, acts like insulation, trapping heat and driving up surface temperatures.

Whatever your view on global warming, that’s a very simple but alarming scientific fact. It’s also why global climate action focuses on GHG reduction to try and slow the saturation and avoid the 1.5ºC surface temperature increase that is likely to become a reality as early as 2027. 

With all of this in mind, if I said to you that by making two simple behavioural changes you could reduce your own end-user computing emissions by one-third, would you do it? My research shows that in fact nine out of 10 of us would.

How to slash computing emissions

This emissions abatement can be achieved by simply selecting personal computers with low carbon footprints and keeping them for longer.

The first change is obvious; if the carbon impact is lower, then that’s a good thing. The second is equally obvious but strangely rarely considered.

If we keep a device for twice as long as the average four-year lifespan, we require one device over that timeframe rather than two, thereby slashing demand and impact in half.

While you might want to do the right thing, the problem is that we don’t often control our device selection. In certain settings, this falls to the IT and procurement teams in the organisations where we work or the schools in which we learn.

Think about it: you start a new job and you’re handed a notebook and told if you’re still there in a few years you’ll get a new one. Sounds good?

But what if you knew the device you’d just been given has a carbon footprint 500% higher than a similar alternative that offers exactly the same experience? And what if that other device would give you that same experience for at least eight years?

Would you push the device back across the table and ask to be involved in the selection process so you can make the ethical choice?

The chances are that if you did, you’d at best be met with a blank look.

Advancing sustainable IT

The problem is that until recently, selection criteria for computers in the workplace rarely ever included carbon footprint assessment and short hardware retention policies are common practice due to a legacy concern over operating system obsolescence.

Fortunately progress is being made at national and international policy level; for manufacturers and customers this will increase the likelihood that sustainability will become key to device choice. In all of this, I am pleased to have played my part.

From a manufacturer perspective, I work as a sustainable IT research consultant for the majority of global IT brands.

The research focuses on improving product carbon footprint lifecycle assessment methodologies and driving GHG abatement with IT.

This latter aspect is achieved by identifying sustainable IT products and services and substantiating their ability to drive climate action when adopted in the workplace.

As an example, I’ve been fortunate enough to carry out scientific research that underpins Google’s ChromeOS and Flex customer-facing sustainability strategy, Microsoft’s W365 cloud PC sustainability positioning plus many others, from software to hardware to services.

I have also worked with leading computer eco-label TCO Certified to create new metrics that include supply chain carbon footprint criteria in their global certification for the first time in 30 years.

From a customer perspective, this work with computer manufacturers and eco-labels filters down into organisations all round the world and helps to reduce their IT carbon footprint.

In relation to device selection and retention policy impact, I have adopted a personal mission to ensure this is simple and effective and therefore supports responsible consumption.

Choosing sustainable devices

After five years, 23 research papers and measuring the electricity use and supply chain impact of several million computers, I have conceived and developed an application platform called Px3.

The solution drives sustainable IT adoption in organisations operating in the commercial, public and third sectors by focusing on ease of use, accuracy and proven reasons to take action.

The online platform has three functions: the first application is free to access by anyone, and enables organisations to estimate the carbon footprint of their end-user computing environment at a device-type level.

The idea is to make people aware of the high-level impact and then to consider taking action.

The second application takes this concept deeper. It enables companies to generate end-user carbon footprints based on exact device models, where in the world they are used and for how many years.

The application also calculates electricity consumption and associated costs.

Using all this data, organisations can model sustainable IT strategies such as device lifespan extension that will displace procurement cycles and the selection of low carbon footprint devices for future purchases.  

On this note, the third application allows IT and procurement teams to stack rank and compare end-user computing devices by carbon footprint before purchase.

That might sound simple, but when I started the research in 2018 I soon discovered that the global standard for measuring computer electricity consumption didn’t actually include periods when humans use computers!

It also soon became apparent that all brands use different methods to generate GHG emission data.

Fortunately my research developed new ways to calculate electricity consumption based on real-world use and to deconstruct and reconstruct manufacturers’ product carbon footprint reports.

The results mean that companies can now make their device selection on a level playing field and know that the carbon footprint data is relevant to where they will use the computer and how long they will keep it. 

Government computing emissions

During the research process that produced the apps, I was fortunate enough to work with the UK government – and specifically the Sustainable Technology Advice & Reporting (STAR) team that set the national sustainable IT policy.

One of three research papers used the Px3 application platform to calculate the planet and profit impacts of a wholesale transition to Google’s ChromeOS across almost 2 million government computers. 

The idea was to achieve reduced electricity consumption, keep devices for longer periods and when required, only select new low carbon footprint devices.

Part of my research had previously discovered that ChromeOS uses less energy than other operating systems and that ChromeOS Flex enables device lifespan extension and also improves energy efficiency.

Google had also recently announced 10-year support for the software, meaning that new devices would avoid operating system obsolescence and therefore could be kept for at least eight years.

The research showed that from 2023 to 2030 the UK government has the opportunity to reduce end-user computing electricity emissions – every year – by just over 1 million kg CO2e, saving £9m in utility costs annually.

More significantly, extending device lifespans and selecting low carbon footprint alternatives in the future will avoid almost 57 million kg CO2e of scope 3 supply chain emissions every year and save just over £68m in annual procurement costs.

The triple bottom line

In total, the difference between the ‘do nothing policy’ and the proposed ‘sustainable IT’ policy for the projected eight-year period was breathtaking and certainly answers the question whether sustainable IT strategies deliver impact. 

Cumulatively, 464 million kg CO2e of GHG emissions could be avoided between now and 2030 – that’s equivalent to avoiding the emissions created by 1.7 billion car miles.

In all, even the greatest of climate sceptics would struggle to resist the allure of achieving success in the triple bottom line via sustainable IT.

In fact, during the eight-year period the UK government could save £651,388,610 by reducing utility and procurement costs.

Fortunately the message from all three papers resonated, and the government introduced a number of the proposed practices to the national Greening ICT national policy in late 2022.

Driving climate action

Interest in the Px3 platform continues and so far organisations responsible for over 2 million computer users are using the applications to drive climate action via sustainable IT.

The impact is also gaining external attention from ethical and sustainability bodies; this year the research was nominated for both the P.E.A. Climate Pioneer Award and The Earthshot Prize.

Whether we will win anything remains to be seen, but it’s reassuring to note that people who matter are taking notice.

If you like the sound of reducing your end-user computing carbon footprint by a third without too much effort, why don’t you ask your workplace IT and procurement teams if they use the Px3 applications? And if not, why not? 

You never know, if they do decide to take climate action seriously then you may even receive the low carbon footprint device you deserve. But please –don’t replace it too soon…

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