Electric cars are being heralded in glossy advertising, policy debates and popular discourse as the revolution that will save the planet from climate change. The truth is electric cars still produce particulate pollution from their brakes and tyres, clog streets by parking on pavements, which puts the most vulnerable in society at risk and ultimately, an electric car is only as clean as to how the electricity used is generated. Technology shares many of the same attributes as the electric car; it is seen as the way to reduce the carbon impact of an organisation; whilst it's true that Zoom based meetings reduce the need to fly, there is still an impact - energy is used.
Aware of both the need for technology to face up to its carbon footprint and that it can be the answer, two CIOs have begun to collate information and create a Wiki for peers in business technology leadership. The reason for developing a Wiki? Tackling climate change and understanding the carbon footprint of IT is as complex as our planet's natural ecosystem.
We are not the gurus; we are creating a central place.
Says CTO Avril Chester of the Tech Carbon Impact.com Wiki. The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many quarters, increased awareness of the need to take better care of our planet. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported on August 9, 2021 that global warming is out of control and the world faces climate disruption such as the wildfires in the USA, Australia and southern Europe, as well as the severe flooding in Germany for many years to come. The IPCC said human action was "unequivocally" to blame and that the current wave of extreme weather is set to become more severe.
Chester, CTO with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), is amongst a number of CIOs and CTOs that are voicing their concerns about the state of the natural environment, and who honestly admit that technology is part of the problem. It may also be part of the cure.
As a Wiki more people can contribute, and we can all learn from it. We want the Wiki to be a place that is a reputable resource.
The Tech Carbon Impact.com Wiki states its aim as:
As people working in digital and technology, it can feel as if our carbon footprint is invisible. But digital technology does have a physical impact. As we know, carbon is generated by data, Google searches, video streaming, even sending emails (rather than printing documents).
Caroline Morgan, a CIO with experience in housing, the public sector and professional services, teamed up with Chester to develop the Wiki following an event for digital leaders where both realized that there just is not enough information for CIOs and CTOs to use in making ecological decisions:
It is a jargon rich field, so it is easy to feel alienated, and people get afraid when they are not the expert.
The climate emergency is probably the single largest economic and ethical challenge any organization and technology leader will face. Described by the United Nations as real and that human activities are the main cause, the buildup of greenhouse gases in the environment is directly linked to the average global temperature on Earth, which in turn changes weather systems leading to extreme weather events. CIOs in the water sector have revealed to diginomica that climate change is having a major impact on the ability to ensure there is enough clean water available to citizens.
Technology is a major contributor to the buildup of greenhouse gasses, The Shift Project in France found that online video streaming in 2018 was responsible for close to 300 million tons of CO2, which the think tank says is the same level of CO2 as produced by Spain. The lockdown has grounded air travel but increased online video collaboration and streaming.
Chester says peers are looking for answers on how to extend the life of the hardware, reduce power costs or whether off-setting is a realistic option. Morgan adds:
With the cloud, although better, the carbon footprint is less physical, in the past, we could see the footprint of our technology. But, people are uncomfortably aware that there is an impact, but it is hard to get to the bottom of it.
The Wiki aims to bring knowledge together, and using Wiki functionality provides the openness for CIOs and CTOs to contribute the knowledge they glean from research and experience.
We have monthly sessions of moderation to look through the material, and we will be looking to our community to help with that moderation.
Chester explains when asked if the Wiki is not too open and therefore vulnerable to climate change denying sceptics misleading the topic.
If we had to filter, that would become a heavy burden on my team, and we have got to build trust, as we don't want to be a police state.
She adds that modifications to the Wiki will prevent bots from changing the content and contributors are asked to contact RIBA and demonstrate their credentials.
As the most senior technologists in an organization, CIOs and CTOs are in a strong position to impact the technology sector and drive down the carbon emissions that hardware, software and infrastructure creates. Morgan says:
We need to start asking questions of our suppliers, just as we now do with diversity and inclusion, where we are now empowered to ask: 'what is your policy?' The suppliers also need a good business reason to respond to the demand for better environmental credentials. It will be a mix of consumer pressure by IT leaders.
I completely sympathise with the CIOs trying to deal with this, especially having dealt with COVID-19.
Architecture and the planet
Architectural body RIBA has set the 2030 Climate Challenge, which is a realization that architecture has a role to play in lowering the impact human activity has on the planet. A set of targets have been set by RIBA, which will reduce the operational energy usage, the embodied carbon and potable water demands of a building. The technology industry could adopt the same challenges, reducing operational energy, especially in tools such as video, hardware in particular hosts a high degree of embodied carbon, and consumers are actively encouraged to 'upgrade' devices on a regular basis, while infrastructure such as data centres have a high impact on water usage.
When I joined RIBA, I realized that we had to get involved in the 2030 Climate Challenge as IT, and that we could contribute to the statements that RIBA has set out and do something ourselves.
Chester, RIBA CTO, said of technology playing a deeper role in the environmental challenge at RIBA and more widely. She adds that architecture, like IT, is finding that it lacks the data required to tackle the challenge.
Following the digital leaders' event and some initial thoughts, work began on the Tech Carbon Impact.com Wiki in November 2020, and in May 2021 the title went live. Hosted on MediaWiki software, RIBA has ambitions to use the Wiki format further to collate and share knowledge with members and other important communities.
Recent investor activity at major banks and even oil firms such as Exxon demonstrates that organizations and their customers realize that they must reduce the impact of their activities on the natural environment. CIOs and CTOs will be asked to be part of this agenda. As with the electric car analogy, new technology is part of the answer, but changing from petrol to electric reduces one problem, but not all of the problems. Drastically cutting air travel is to be applauded, but data centres, dubbed the dirty secret of the internet, will merely move the problem out of the airport and into a nondescript business park.
Action will only be effective if it is well informed. RIBA and CIOs Avril Chester and Caroline Morgan have begun architecting the knowledge foundations. It is up to the technology community to build with them.