In our largely paperless age, most of your emails will include a message along the lines of: ‘only print this email if you need to’. Almost none will say ‘only respond to this email if you must’; but, given the current environmental impact of IT, perhaps they should.
Each year the IT industry and the use of technology by businesses and individuals currently accounts for more than 1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions – more than the aviation industry prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, the carbon impact of how we use IT tends to slip under the radar.
It is easy to forget that routine tasks, such as sending a quick email or an instant message on Microsoft Teams, involves a transfer of data and the use of power. According to one energy supplier, we could save as much as 16,400 tonnes of carbon per year just by sending one less ‘thank you’ email each day.
Reducing the carbon footprint of IT can, in fact, be achieved through some relatively simple steps, but in most organisations, it will require a cultural shift. These changes could deliver a carbon footprint reduction in the region of 45%.
The conversation about sustainable IT needs to come from the top-down, involving all departments from marketing and finance to operations – not only IT. Procurement teams, for example, should consider the environmental impact of their decisions on new systems, equipment, or data centres, as well as other criteria such as performance and costs.
There are many companies still taking a ‘delete nothing’ or ‘keep it just in case’ approach to file storage – in the majority of cases, though, files will likely sit untouched for years. If you save multiple versions of one document after several rounds of changes, you could quickly end up with up to 60 copies of a file stored in your system, including document recovery and back-up files.
Put simply, a stricter filing and archiving system could make a significant impact on your carbon footprint while also reducing the costs associated with cloud storage.
The size and type of files used and shared can also contribute to a greater demand for power. Studies show that high-definition video streaming on mobile devices could create eight times more carbon dioxide emissions than standard-definition even though the user won’t be able to tell the difference.
At the height of lockdown last March, Netflix decided to reduce video quality across its European streaming services, which it estimated would reduce data consumption by up to 25%.
Other good housekeeping habits can help. You would always turn the lights off leaving the office at the end of the day, but do you turn off your devices too? There may be power-hungry networking and storage systems that could be turned off overnight and at weekends without any effect. Of course, it is important to establish the difference between critical systems and those which can be switched off.
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Sustainability also comes into designing digital tools and assets, whether they are apps, websites, or graphics. Teams are well accustomed to working within guidelines on branding or accessibility, but new standards on sustainability may be required.
In the development of most apps, for instance, excess code could be removed as a final step of the design to produce a more efficient, streamlined result and, with that, less power consumption.
Just as a website must be useful to anyone with additional access needs, it should also be as environmentally friendly as it can be. Some companies, for instance, have created new websites where users are requested to opt-in to view a more data-heavy version of the site with high-res videos and images.
When it comes to the fight against climate change, we know that small positive changes like these can have a big impact. Streamlining IT processes and systems and establishing sustainable habits are small initiatives that could be easily introduced to the office, if approached in the right way – just like becoming paper-free.