The world is heading toward a more sustainable future and organizations are inspired to be a part of the solution. Many have set net zero and carbon neutral goals, and it’s clear that advancements in technology will help organizations achieve these sustainability goals by improving efficiencies and reducing the processes that create emissions.
But what many organizations do not realize is that these same technology investments and capabilities can also negatively impact the environment. Recent research on sustainable IT from the Capgemini Research Institute found that 57% of companies aren’t aware of their IT carbon footprint -- the impact created by their devices, systems, and capabilities. IT is not typically part of the conversation when organizations establish their sustainability plans -- only 18% report having a sustainable IT strategy.
This is a vast area of untapped potential as companies progress along their sustainability journeys. However, progress needs to be made now: Research shows that by 2025, enterprise IT will have an equivalent annual footprint to powering 360 million homes and generating the transportation of 460 million passenger vehicles.
A lack of awareness of this problem, and how to solve it, is keeping organizations from tackling their IT sustainability challenges and reducing their overall footprints. Here are four areas of enterprise IT proving that current investments and practices aren’t sustainable:
- Data centers. Data centers are an important part of business operations and infrastructure, even as many organizations shift data storage to the cloud. However, the amount of energy that it takes to keep data centers up and running is enormous -- they contribute to 2% of the electricity use of the entire US.
- Devices. Unlike data centers where the amount of electricity used to power them is the main contributor to an organization’s carbon footprint, for devices, the carbon footprint of producing the devices themselves is nearly equal to, or exceeds, that of their usage. Our research shows that 60% of the overall IT footprint comes from devices like laptops, desktops, and mobile phones.
- Artificial intelligence. While AI can certainly help reduce emissions, it can also contribute to an organization’s carbon footprint, as AI-based technologies require large amounts of computing power. A study showed that training an AI language processing system produced 1,400 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions -- about the amount produced by flying one-person roundtrip between New York and San Francisco. As the use of AI expands, reducing its energy load is central to creating AI that drives sustainability.
- Data collection. Even for those who do understand that IT is creating a carbon footprint, 49% say the lack of tools, standards, and ratings to evaluate that footprint is creating an enormous challenge, preventing them from collecting data on the consumption of each device, system, and data center. With this barrier to true visibility and insight, organizations are struggling to gain a vantage point into their IT footprint and use it to make thoughtful changes.
While the challenges are significant, here are two example solutions:
1. Recyclable, reparable, and sharable tech. Over the years, there has been a lot of focus on reducing physical waste and consumption -- decreasing the use of physical paper, reevaluating disposal methods, and expanding recycling requirements being just a few examples. While these practices are nothing new, the translation to digital files and digital architectures has been sparse: our research shows that less than 20% of e-waste is recycled, and only 6% of organizations have auto-deletion policies for old files and data-duplication reduction initiatives.
A shared and reusable approach to technology can be a crucial tool toward achieving sustainable IT. In fact, there’s been an increasing trend toward “as a service” offerings since new recycle programs help promote a “use as much as you need” mindset and cost for these services is based on pay-for-use. As organizations look to tackle their IT footprints, applying these practices that traditionally are categorized for physical waste and consumption to how we treat our IT and digital materials can have a large, positive impact.
2. Embed a culture of sustainability into new technology investments and processes. Investing in tools with a “sustainability-first” mindset and actively seeking ways to reduce waste can build an environmentally beneficial culture. And an understanding of the full landscape of carbon emissions -- internal operations, suppliers, customers, partners, and messaging -- is crucial for leaders to inspire and drive action.
To achieve this, there are large gaps for leaders to address. Sixty-two percent of organizations say they haven’t implemented sustainable architecture that identifies energy-intensive applications for replacement, and only 5% of companies have switched to green cloud architectures. However, once these systems and processes that require great deals of computing power and energy are identified, there can be a business case for new investments that have sustainability built into their foundation.Working with third parties and vendors that are environmentally friendly and have common sustainability goals is a great place to start, as it supports a corporate culture that prioritizes sustainability at every level of the business.
IT is an area of significant untapped potential for organizations looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprints, but many aren’t aware of just how much IT contributes to their emissions. Focusing efforts on green IT can be a key step along the path toward achieving carbon neutral and net-zero goals.
Sarah Pope is Vice President, Future of Technology & Innovation with Capgemini Invent, Capgemini's digital innovation, consulting, and transformation group. Sarah leads the Digital Workplace practice for North America, advising and enabling clients to define and achieve their Digital, People and Innovation goals.
Elfije Lemaitre is Vice President, US Energy, Utilities, & Chemicals at Capgemini. She specializes in leading strategic, transformational, and digital programs, including value-chain optimization, digital assets, digital workers, digital core (ERP), and renewable enterprise strategy, and talent development in the digital sphere.