There’s an interesting dichotomy hidden in the concept of Earth Day. On the one hand, we have selected one of 365 revolutions that the earth will make this year to celebrate our connection with the planet. On the other, the Earth – soil, water, atmosphere, built environment – encompasses us completely; it can’t be a discrete consideration apart from our walking, waking, eating, breathing. Taken together, Earth Day can be seen as a construct designed to help us to contemplate our relationship with all that defines our physical existence: an invitation to contemplate how we can be better stewards of our planet.
One key step in improving our stewardship is reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – CO2, and less common but more harmful gasses such as methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride – that harm our environment. Businesses can generate these GHGs directly or contribute to their creation via power usage or other business activities. As this information from the US Environmental Protection Agency demonstrates, emissions are generally classified into three categories:
Scope 1 emissions result primarily from processes that involve burning fossil fuels. As the chart below – which looks only at Scope 1 and Scope 2 – shows, Scope 1 emissions are generated mainly by utilities, energy companies, materials (extraction and refining), and industrial (manufacturing) firms. In other sectors, most emissions are categorized as Scope 2, resulting from electricity use. Scope 3 is not included in this chart because when the data was compiled nine years ago, there was no credible and consistent way to measure and benchmark Scope 3 emissions.
IT plays an important role in enhancing sustainability at all three levels. Scope 1 emissions are reduced by improved process monitoring, by reducing waste, and by integrating non-polluting alternatives into processes. This includes using IoT devices to generate needed insight and data, and to provide, in many cases, automated controls.
Where IT plays a leading Earth Day role, though, is in reducing Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions. Some of the key areas connecting IT and sustainability include:
According to the US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, data centers consume 10-50 times more energy per square foot than commercial offices; in many large enterprises, data centers are often the single leading source of Scope 2 emissions.
IT and facilities leaders can pursue several different options to reduce the cost and environmental impact of data center operations. They can look to integrate renewable sources into their data center supply, eliminating carbon emissions before they occur. They can implement design principles, such as hot aisle/cold aisle containment or architectures that closely align cooling with heat sources, or technologies, such as more efficient servers and power supplies and adiabatic cooling, to reduce the power needed to deliver compute capacity to users. They can increase server utilization, moving from the typically low averages for dedicated enterprise servers to higher levels through effective virtualization. And they can integrate cloud into their IT supply chain: advanced cloud providers are leaders in use of alternative energy and have a direct profit incentive to optimize power efficiency.
Takeaways: Measure consumption efficiently – for example, via use of a data center infrastructure management (DCIM) solution. Include energy and emissions metrics in evaluations – of new technologies/refreshes, locations, and cloud vs. company-owned facilities. Ensure alignment between IT and facilities staff to eliminate situations where conflicting metrics and incentives drive outcomes that are contrary to environmental (and cost) efficiencies.
Data centers are often thought to consume somewhat more than 2% of total global energy. This means that improving data center efficiency is essential…but what of the other 98%? Estimates through the years have held that better use of technology to reduce the energy efficiency of business activities – ranging from more efficient transportation routes and fuel optimization, to substituting virtual artifacts and travel for physical documents, models, and meetings, to IoT controls that reduce power demand and waste in buildings, industrial processes, and other environments – can yield energy savings that will more than offset power used by IT.
Recommendations: Look at energy use holistically, with the goal of identifying opportunities to decarbonize/dematerialize processes across the enterprise. Target emission-intensive activities – transportation, logistics, heavy industrial processes, use of raw materials and of concrete, etc. – that can offer significant return on migration to alternative approaches.
“What gets measured gets managed” is a common management axiom. While it is debatable (and debated) in some contexts, it is emphatically true with respect to driving better environmental outcomes.
Some of the examples cited above speak to this point: use of DCIM to optimize power usage within a data center, use of route optimization systems to save fuel in delivery routes, use of systems to identify waste in industrial processes or to improve building energy performance by understanding real-time requirements for light, heat, and cooling.
One of the most important connections between measurement and the environment is the relatively recent ability to consider Scope 3 emissions as part of the enterprise sustainability mission. Intuitively, it’s evident that managing Scope 3 emissions would have an enormous impact on an organization’s environmental footprint: ensuring responsible actions by suppliers of raw materials, reducing waste associated with needed inputs, arranging for responsible end-of-life product treatment, and many other upstream and downstream activities would contribute greatly to corporate stewardship.
As mentioned above, though, Scope 3 emissions are very difficult to measure and monitor. Businesses can set standards for suppliers, but at a practical level, there are tremendous challenges in aggregating and normalizing the data to facilitate analysis and comparison. It can also be difficult to gain corporate commitment to take action on the insights gained from this analysis, and to find ways to communicate the benefits of environmental responsibility to customers, suppliers, and investors.
Recommendations: Build transparent reporting and consistent standards into supply contracts. Participate in benchmarking conducted by organizations like the Carbon Disclosure Project. Build social awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship through corporate communications to internal and external stakeholders. Look for and emphasize opportunities to reduce cost and enhance revenue through improved sustainability actions and reporting.
It’s important that we take time today to celebrate Earth Day and affirm a commitment to our environment. It’s especially important for those of us who work in technology, as many of the paths leading to better stewardship depend on the awareness and insight that comes from local measurement, corporate commitment, and global action. As is the case in many aspects of our digital society, sustainability progress requires IT to provide both support and leadership to our businesses and their communities.
Michael is a world-leading IT industry analyst. He has led North American and global initiatives focused on developing insights and strategies that connect technology solutions with business needs, combining data, knowledge, analysis and advanced content delivery to define options for IT and buy-side businesses.