Some organisations are appointing chief sustainability officers or similar roles but CIOs are front and centre of the sustainability puzzle too. Datacentres account for over two per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (about the same as aviation), according to various surveys, and the ICT sector is responsible for up to nine per cent of the world’s electricity use, according to the EU. Increased digitisation of the world will inevitably lead to more bits and bytes being sent and stored. The world’s stock of digital information doubles every two years and with trends such as 5G and 4k/8k/16k video growing, there’s no sign of a slowdown. Quite the opposite in fact: our addiction to hi-res entertainment and videoconferencing is leading to a data consumption glut.
The good news is that ICT developments are leading to more environmentally-friendly datacentres, servers, desktops, mobiles, storage and networking. Free-air cooling uses filtered ambient air to reduce datacentre heat, especially in cool climates with air that is neither too moist nor too dry. Waste heat is being repurposed, for example to power offices and renewable energy sources such as hydro, solar and wind power are becoming widely used in datacentres too. All this has encouraged the EU to call for net-zero datacentres to be standard by 2030.
Equipment is becoming greener too. Hardware designs today are often based on cradle-to-cradle thinking and circular economy approaches where recycled materials are used and reused. The process of using microorganisms (called bioleaching) is also showing promise in the mining of precious metals used in hardware. Badge programmes such as Energy Star have made it far easier to select tools in good conscience. And of course, engineers are constantly working on hardware and software approaches to create smarter, more efficient processes and hardware that sips at power.
Also, we can be confident that ICT itself is a power for good. It enables automation that helps to reduce energy usage elsewhere in the value chain. Think for example of how Zoom calls are replacing international business travel or how virtual goods such as digital streams and downloads are replacing physical goods such as DVDs and books. Or consider how smart manufacturing is creating more efficient product design and fabrication or how smart cities are leading to tremendous efficiencies in transit, waste collection and digitised services. And of course, digital platforms and tools are the raw materials for the next waves of smarter options.
Much of the opportunity to clean and renew our world is centred on digital efforts. By making best use of ICT, CIOs can now not only make their organisations greener, thus building brand equity for them, but also more cost-efficient. Sustainability is a win-win all-round.
Of course, sustainability isn’t simple and building net-zero datacentres such as those being created at Apple and Facebook is going to be limited to a privileged few for now. But CIOs have some big levers at their disposal and, by using cloud and co-location, even smaller enterprises can access highly efficient resources. These offer ways to share costs, achieve high levels of utilisation via advanced virtualisation and containers, and to tap into the infrastructure and skills necessary for optimal energy efficiency.
There is a compelling confluence of trends here. Cloud adoption is accelerating just as datacentre design is rapidly evolving and as networks become smarter and utility-like. We have the chance to tap into a new computing grid that offers tremendous value and efficiency without sacrificing ethics. But the sustainability issue needs to be looked at from an even wider lens. CIOs also need to examine the backgrounds of suppliers and their supply chains and sourcing of components, for example. If we examine matters in the round and examine our own consciences on matters such as business travel, choice of company cars and carbon offsetting policies then we help to perpetuate the continuum of improvements that are needed.
The challenges are many but the rewards are equally plentiful. Organisations that can show leading sustainability credentials will be best placed to hire and inspire the latest generations of talented people that demand employers that can provide more than a salary. CIOs can blaze a path that goes way beyond altruism to enlightened self-interest while preserving the planet and promoting ethics at the same time as they create lower cost bases and healthier practices for all. Stocked with deep knowledge of the ICT sector, CIOs need to push to lead or at least sit on the steering committees that will shape our collective future.