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Sustainable IT

IT sustainability expert Justin Sutton-Parker reveals how tech can help businesses slash their emissions
Sustainable IT

This article first appeared in our Health Revolution issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 24 July 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Several years ago I adopted a personal life goal to remove the greenhouse gas (GHG) equivalent of 100,000 cars from the atmosphere by 2050 through the diffusion of sustainable IT.

In context, I work in the information technology industry; my latest sustainability research indicates IT-related activities contribute as much as 5% of global GHG emissions. Consequently, sequestering the pollution from the way we work today would require a forest the size of Canada and Greenland.

Meeting our emissions target

According to the UN, ‘combining innovation in the use of existing technologies and in behaviour with the promotion of investment in new technologies has the potential to transform societies and reduce their GHG emissions’.

Adopting sustainable IT practices supports this concept of looking beyond the obvious environmental wins presented by electric cars and renewable energy. It could bridge the current global 32GtCO2e GHG emissions target gap that will make the difference between 1.5ºC global warming and 2ºC.

Four steps for business

The foundation for success for my personal goal is the ‘4 Simple IT Sustainability Strategies’ I conceived while completing an MBA in Sustainability Leadership with the University of Cumbria and the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).

The steps are: switch to low-energy computing devices; enable flexible working to reduce commuting; use cloud computing powered by low-carbon energy and extend the useful lifecycle of IT hardware.

While conducting PhD research with the University of Warwick, I’ve also created a methodology and cloud computing application to measure success. It delivers a CO2e value for IT-related GHG emissions and abatement, while at the same time highlighting the money saved and the environmental gains – shown in simple formats, such as the car and forest equivalents.

The Triple Bottom Line

The design concept was based on Elkington’s ‘Triple Bottom Line’ approach, which requires an acknowledgement of People, Planet and Profit.

For me, sustainability isn’t about whether people truly accept that climate change is happening. It is more the principle of ensuring our actions today do not limit the range of economic, social and environmental options open to future generations.

Now, after several years researching, testing and developing the application, I’m bringing the research out of the laboratory.

Today, I’m working with global IT vendors and channel partners, plus the commercial and public sectors, to achieve the original 100,000 car equivalent abatement goal.

Converting 100m customers

This year Citrix, the global software company, translated my ‘4 Simple Steps’ concept into a free e-book, The Sustainability Era. The company has also absorbed my research into a sales and marketing programme to convert some of its 100,000,000 customers to more sustainable computing. At a theoretical extreme, the impact could abate 50MtCO2e in emissions – which is actually 10.8m cars!

Tim Minahan, executive vice president of Citrix, said, ‘As this research makes clear, the choices we make as individuals and businesses can have immediate, cumulative effects and deliver environmental, economic and social benefits that can lead to a more sustainable planet. It’s also clear that by using digital virtualisation and workspace technologies to empower flexible and remote work models, companies can positively impact sustainability.’

Cutting costs with IT

This momentum with Citrix has also enabled me to work with Fujitsu, where Sarah-Jane Littleford is head of responsible business. She said, ‘One of the major enablers for delivering social and environmental value is technology. Justin’s research facilitates increased adoption of efficient and sustainable tech with a direct, positive impact on climate change.’

I’ve also been speaking with a team from tech giant Google to explore uses for my field research, which found Chrome OS notebooks are highly energy efficient.

Michael Wyatt, head of Chrome Enterprise EMEA, said, ‘Justin’s research helps to confirm that sustainability does indeed work hand in hand with lower operating costs and the conservation of energy and other natural resources. Sustainability is now not just a nice to have, but a reality that we all must embrace if we want to thrive on Mother Earth and ensure our beautiful world remains that way for many generations to come.’

The value of partnerships

Looking ahead, I’m thrilled that two of my current research papers will be included in the 10th International Conference on Sustainable Energy Information Technology (SEIT) in August. I will also speak about sustainability for the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners in July.

I now believe that by leveraging the UN Sustainable Development Goal of partnerships, I will exceed the once lofty 100,000 car aspiration ahead of 2050. Perhaps I need to raise my sights and hope for more?

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