Decarbonizing UK IT - is technology climate’s angel or its demon?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton May 11, 2021
A high-level policy debate on climate change discusses: is technology the problem or the solution?

An image of the world burning
(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay )

Toss a coin and which version of Britain do you see: the one that looks ahead to the future, or the one obsessed with the long tail of its history? On the one hand, the UK's commitment to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, its hosting of the G7 Summit in June and of the UN's COP26 Climate Change Conference in November, tell the planet that it is serious about tackling global warming.

But on the other, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's penchant for playing to the sceptics' gallery with jokes about "bunny huggers" needlessly creates the opposite impression. It suggests that while Britain makes occasional pronouncements about the climate crisis or new technologies, its leader sees these things as just another excuse for a jape. That risks undermining some good, serious work - and it patronizes the people who are doing it.

As with Johnson's bizarre 2019 speech to the UN on technology, in which he talked about "pink-eyed Terminators", cheese, limbless chickens, Roman emperors, smart mattresses monitoring your nightmares, and Alexa "stamping her foot" (passive misogyny - always a vote winner), it's an approach that reveals more about Johnson's schoolboy psyche, his deep-seated urge to be crass, than it does about the imperative to create a modern, forward-looking economy.

Post Brexit, the UK really has no alternative, and green technology could be a big part of that story.

But while Johnson likes to signal to his devoted phalanx of culture warriors that he doesn't believe in the modern world, the entrepreneurs and technologists who are trying to build a new economy certainly do. The risk of having a leader who is so out of step with the country's innovators is that neither the UK's allies nor its investors can feel as confident as they need to be when supporting its future outside Europe. No 10's slapstick routine must stop; it's completely counter-productive.

But the pandemic has done more to modernize the economy than a Prime Minister who invariably looks like he has slept in a ditch. Crises engender innovation, said Gerard Grech, CEO of UK entrepreneurs' network Tech Nation. COVID-19 is pushing people towards smarter, greener technologies, just as the 2008-09 financial crisis helped spur a revolution in FinTech.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on decarbonizing the UK's digital economy on 6 May, he added:

When you look over the last two years of investment in impact tech - investment linked to the UN's sustainable development goals - it has nearly tripled in the UK. The climate tech sector specifically has seen an increase in investment of 63%, year on year, it's the highest by far in Europe, so the UK is in great shape in that regard.

The need for development in the climate tech space is ever more pressing and the stats are very clear: the 20 warmest years in history have been recorded in the last 22 years, global sea levels have risen by 20 centimetres in the past century, and the ice sheets are shrinking at an unprecedented rate.

The UK has responded by setting a legally binding objective of reaching a Net Zero target by 2050, the first major economy in the world to pass legislation on such a target. And in the past few weeks we've seen the government go even further with a target to slash emissions by 78% by 2035.

That's good news. However, one of the challenges in this space is the need for patient capital: investors who are prepared to sit on their hands for the journey rather than expect payback at the first stop along the way. And as I explored in my recent report on UK tech investment, some of the rungs of the investment ladder are missing, making ventures hard to scale domestically.

Grech said:

For these companies to achieve long-term objectives, they need long-term support. This is not always compatible with venture capital, which expects a return on investment in a shorter period. If you apply the normal VC model, they tend to expect a return within seven to 10 years. In some cases, companies are working on breakthrough technology that will take a lot longer than that, though that may accelerate because of the pandemic.

So, how do we incentivize more investors to invest in these spaces? And how can government itself and the amount of money it spends through its procurement contracts… well, ‘favour' is a strong word, but do whatever it can to encourage companies to step up and make sure that they are Net Zero compliant themselves?

Ten goals

Put another way, strategists need carrots, but they also need sticks.

While the lack of sincerity from No10 is often infuriating, the government has at least promised to back its Net Zero ambitions with cash. It announced a £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio last November, focusing on entrepreneurs in several key areas. These include: floating offshore wind; advanced modular nuclear reactors; energy storage & flexibility; bioenergy; hydrogen; direct air capture; industrial fuel switching; and the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) in the energy sector, in order to minimise waste.

According to David Aitken, Associate Director of Policy and Innovation at the Carbon Trust, a circular and whole-systems approach will be essential to maximize the impact of the interconnections in the government's 10-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which it also published last November.

Those ten goals are to:

  • Advance offshore wind

  • Drive the growth of low-carbon hydrogen

  • Deliver new, advanced nuclear power

  • Accelerate the shift to low-emission vehicles

  • Push for green public transport, plus more cycling and walking

  • Adopt Jet Zero (net-zero-emissions aerospace, plus electric flight) and green ships

  • Put up greener buildings and improve existing ones

  • Invest in carbon capture, usage, and storage

  • Protect the natural environment

  • Encourage green finance and FinTech innovation.

All great aims, but will they translate into action and investment in the real world?

The technology industry has a huge role to play in this, in decarbonizing the planet and itself, and there is evidence that it is doing just that. For example, in 2019 GSMA and the Carbon Trust calculated that the use of mobile technologies drove global emissions reductions of 2,135 million tonnes of CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalent, or all forms of greenhouse gas] in the previous year - almost ten times more than the carbon footprint of the mobile industry itself.

Yet one eForum speaker suggested that the ICT industries' negative impact on the planet has been overstated by industry commentators. Srinivasan Keshav, Robert Sansom Professor of Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, said:

The questions ‘Are data centers consuming too much power?', ‘Is too much energy being wasted on Bitcoin?', ‘Going to Netflix contributes substantially to global warming', and so on, these are the kinds of things the media picks up on, but the facts don't bear it out.

The actual energy footprint of tech was 1.4% [of total emissions] in 2015, and everything else falls within the remaining 98-99%, so it's really not that big a deal. And tech policy is responsible for carbon cuts in data centers, for data transmission via mobile devices, and so on.

If you look at data centers, the [energy usage and carbon footprint] growth is minimal. During the time from 2010 to 2019, Internet traffic went up by a factor of 12, data center workloads by a factor of eight, but data center energy usage stayed pretty constant. So decarbonizing tech, while we should do it, is not quite critical.

Crypto controversy 

Dismissing the environmental impact of ICT, and of specific use cases such as Bitcoin and data centers, is a bold position for an academic to take in 2021, especially since the environmental concerns about at least one of these areas come from his own university.

The Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance's real-time Bitcoin electricity consumption index reveals that Bitcoin mining currently uses more electricity - at a median estimate of 148.5 TWh a year - than all of Malaysia or Sweden, and nearly as much as Egypt or Poland. The upper estimates are more than three times higher than that.

The median figure alone is enough energy to power every kettle in the UK for 33 years, or to run the entire University of Cambridge for 844 years. Significantly, it's also one ninth the amount of electricity generated worldwide by solar, wind, and other renewable sources.

With two-thirds of all Bitcoin mining taking place in China, which generates 58% of its electricity from coal, I put it to Professor Keshav that these are not the minor concerns he claims them to be, especially since his comments might be seized on by climate-change sceptics.

In response, he appeared to row back his comments and even suggested the need for legal intervention in some technology areas. He said:

Bitcoin uses entirely too much energy, but it is an outlier. My data is from 2015, when Bitcoin usage was low. But if we separate that out, the rest of the sector is not a huge user of energy, compared to, say, transportation and HVAC.

There is a good case that Bitcoin should perhaps be banned. Proof-of-work [the decentralized consensus mechanism in some blockchains] is a terrible idea and should also be banned. Proof-of-stake is much better and uses about 10,000 times less energy.

So, it was merely a case of presenting six-year-old data to a high-level policy conference in order to prove a point. He added:

Note also that data center operators are highly incentivized to reduce their energy costs, as this goes directly to their bottom line. They aren't being energy efficient because they are ‘green', but because it makes them more money.

Carbon negative targets

Keshav seems determined to stoke controversy. Unsurprisingly, Eve Joseph doesn't agree with his stance. Microsoft UK's Sustainability Customer Engagement Lead said:

Microsoft is looking to be carbon negative by 2030, and looking to erase our entire footprint since we were incepted by 2050. We're doing that in a number of different ways, one of which is using our voice. How can we enable others to think more strategically and to take action a bit quicker, around how to reach Paris Agreement goals?

Microsoft has a global network of over 160 high-availability data centers, predominantly running its Azure cloud platform. Joseph said:

We're trying to make sure that when we build these data centers, we're building them with very much a carbon zero mentality. We're going to be opening a new data center in Sweden this year, which will be trialling and testing a lot of new innovations - around batteries, around clean backup power, and around hydrogen.

With many of these in their infancy, we need to see more organizations take up these sorts of technologies so that they come down in cost, then more people can start using them. [For example], we're looking to support grid-interactive UPS batteries as we move away from the reliance on diesel [generator] backup.

Better data needed

Some studies - such as the one referenced here - suggest that, despite the claims of Cambridge University's Keshav, the ICT sector is currently on a par with aviation in terms of its environmental impact. Its power consumption could soar as high as 21% of the world total by 2030, with a best-case estimate of eight percent. In that particular study, data centers are the main culprit.

One of the biggest problems, therefore, is finding reliable, universally agreed statistics that don't reinforce confirmation bias on either side of the climate debate as it applies to new technology.

Perhaps the only sensible approach is to look at the devices/installations/facilities themselves. According to a recent Uptime Institute study of 500 data centers, the global average is a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio of 1.8, against an ideal figure of 1.0. Bringing that ratio down would seem to be one of the key challenges for the industry, therefore.

The flipside of this issue is that the digital sector has the potential to directly reduce fossil fuel emissions by 15% by 2030, and indirectly support a further reduction of 35% via influencing consumer behaviour, business decisions, and systems transformation, said Keshav. In this sense, ICT is both a contributing problem and a big part of the overall solution - particularly as smarter, AI-driven systems come onstream.

Which brings us to another factor in the environmental challenge: human beings, their desire to use power-guzzling gadgets - and hang onto many of them unnecessarily.

According to Stuart Hayward-Higham, Technical Development Director at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, Britain is a serial offender in the latter case. There are 40 million unused devices in UK households, and 45% of those households possess two to five unused electronic devices - including VHS players (nearly six million) and cassette players (nearly five million). We should be grateful, at least, that they haven't been dumped in landfills.

Microsoft's Joseph reinforced the key point:

Data centers are only a proportion of the decarbonization that needs to happen. A lot of this comes down to end-user devices and how they are using technology themselves, so we can make our data centers as clean as humanly possible. We need to think about what the endpoint is, and how consumers and businesses are using the data centers.

My take

A fascinating debate which reveals one thing above all others. Beyond government policy - and, more importantly, action and investment - responsibility falls on both IT strategists and individual consumers to think long and hard about their carbon footprints.

We all need to take big steps and little ones to minimise our impacts on the planet.

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