Calculating our digital carbon footprint
Speaker: Mohan Gandhi, Head of Research & Policy at Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA)
Featured in our 2021 London Climate Action Week event: The environmental impact of the digital industry.
Quantifying the world’s digital carbon footprint is no easy feat. Measuring digital consumption can be hard. Particularly when we – as consumers – don’t think about how much our daily lives and routines rely on online infrastructure. Deciding on the best metrics to calculate this footprint’s size can also be difficult. The digital industry is a spaghetti junction of crossed wires. Where do we start taking measurements? Where do we stop?
In October 2020, SDIA launched its Roadmap to Sustainable Digital Infrastructure by 2030. One of our first initiatives was to place some kind of value on the world’s digital carbon footprint. At present, an end-to-end method for quantifying a digital service, which takes into account sub-industries and the complex, interconnected nature of digital infrastructure, doesn’t exist. This is why people, by and large, remain blind to their digital consumption.
The SDIA approached this by establishing six metrics, including resource consumption, electronic waste, pollution, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and the cost of digital power. It is these six metrics which we can use as a point of comparison – a universally recognised language to achieve net-zero by 2030.
To facilitate this collaboration, we also devised around 30 activities, or specific goals, such as ‘leaner software’, or ‘near-zero emission buildings’. All of them are technology and vendor neutral because there’s no one single way of getting there.
Finding our North Star
Whilst emissions and energy consumption have been hot on everyone’s radar for some time, what’s now surfacing is people’s approaches to electronic waste, resource consumption, and pollution. These are elements that involve circularity, encouraging a holistic approach to calculating the world’s digital carbon footprint.
Why approach this way? The digital ecosystem is made up of a large number of different industries, and there is no direction, no common North Star, for these industries to work towards at present. There’s no leadership in this system, no consensus, and everyone’s pulling in slightly different directions.
At its bare bones, SDIA wants to find the digital industry’s North Star. With a common roadmap, chip manufacturers all the way to software developers can all work towards that shared goal. One of the ways we plan to do that is via our Open Data Hub, which we announced in July and are in the process of building.
Like many other organisations, SDIA’s Roadmap is indexed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is also supported by a diverse membership – from energy utilities, to media firms, to data centres, to local authorities and business development agencies. They all make up a large slice of the sub-industries involved in the digital ecosystem.
The ultimate aim of the Roadmap is to provide the missing link needed to drive the industry towards sustainability.
The ownership debate
If you think of a ‘digital good’, it’s important to remember how many different industries it touches before it reaches you. It’s designed by someone. It’s then computed by someone. And then it’s hosted by a data centre. So, it crosses paths with at least three industries before it lands in our hands.
These three industries struggle with the problem of ownership. The data centre facilities are saying: ‘Look, we’re as green as possible, but we don’t have anything to do with the IT and the software.’ If we want to optimise the IT, then we’ve got to go further down the chain. When you talk to software developers, and you ask them how green their software is, they say: ‘Well, it depends where it’s hosted.’
So you have a massive disconnect, with everyone kicking responsibility down the chain. Which is why the aim of a digital carbon footprint is to draw attention to all three areas, and potentially even a fourth area – that is, the customer themselves.
To facilitate the flow of information between these parties, we envision one day creating a combined and holistic carbon footprint. It’s ambitious, and probably won’t make sense in the first iteration, but it’s a helpful goal to work towards.
Getting incentives right
Given the digital industry is such a hidden one, it’s not really been seen to be a problem in the same way the aviation industry or car manufacturers have been. And yet, it is starting to become a very real problem now in places like Amsterdam, where national grid company Liander has warned parts of the city’s electricity grid are now reaching their maximum capacity.
Without much awareness of the impact of the digital industry, incentives are needed to push the industry forwards to a more sustainable future. Currently, they don’t necessarily exist to optimise for efficiency or for sustainability. People just throw more IT hardware at the problem.
As a result, we’ve almost reached the point where hardware is the commodity – like Amsterdam’s grid. You can consume as much energy as you want, and it doesn’t necessarily matter how lean your software is. Which makes the problem of incentives and incentivising the different actors difficult.
Then there’s the information transfer. That is, the information which is not being passed down or up the value chain, meaning there’s no feedback loop, and hence designers aren’t designing with sustainability in mind. Getting this information transfer right can act as an effective incentive in and of itself.
Blinded by the magic
A big misconception about the digital industry and what it rests on is that the cloud is some sort of ‘magic’. Far from it, the cloud relies on a chain of physical infrastructure. There is huge scope to make the fast-growing cloud sector more efficient, by enabling information transfer between these actors.
So, what is the solution? By transferring information, the industry can begin to create a sense of accountability. That way, we’ll start to see various third parties start talking ownership of their section of the chain.
You can only design with the end in mind if you have information on the end of life, for example. So, facilitating information sharing across the value chain is paramount in the battle to better connect what is ironically already a well-connected world.
Transparency benefits accountability. It benefits optimisation. It benefits best practice. And it ultimately benefits the design. One of the aims behind establishing a digital carbon footprint is to bring attention to the various silos, and create a metric that actually connects all the elements of the digital chain.
Signs of an industry sea change
There are pockets of excellence within companies across the digital industry. They’re often in the form of key people who are very interested in pushing this climate agenda forward. But for them, it’s still not an ideal world. They have bosses to answer to.
We’ve noticed the conversation changing and people are moving to action. In large part because over the last 10 years, it’s been these conversations from the bottom up that have put pressure on the bosses, the ultimate decision-makers, to incorporate this more. When we look at the wider industry landscape, there’s plenty of non-profits and industry associations who are pushing this forward too.
Regulators are very keen to improve their respective countries in-line with some of their 2030 and 2050 targets. The downside to this is they don’t necessarily know what to regulate yet. That’s a secondary benefit of this digital carbon footprint, the information and the transparency which comes out of it. Suddenly, regulators will have the right information to make the right regulations.
To learn more about the environmental impact of the digital industry, and what you can do to push the climate agenda forward, check out the Digital Impact section of our blog.