In the first of this series, we delved into digital’s dirty secret: the extensive carbon emissions lurking within its vast hidden infrastructure network. Our world’s ever-increasing immersion in the digital space comes with a heavy environmental cost, and we pay the price with every email, every video call, every stream, and every half-amusing meme. The industry has a responsibility to clean up its act, and all digital businesses – from tech titan to disruptive start-up – now find themselves at the vanguard of that fight. It’s time for all involved to take stock and then take action. In this piece, we’ll be looking at the decarbonisation challenges unique to the industry, the major players that are already rising to meet them, and offer your digital business a roadmap on its route towards net zero and beyond.
Carbon neutrality, the process in which any CO2 released into the atmosphere from a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed, was, for a number of years, the gold standard of carbon management and represented early steps in the right direction for the digital industry – Google, for example, reached this milestone way back in 2007. However, carbon neutrality doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t guarantee that a business is actively committed to reducing their overall emissions. A company can lay claim to carbon neutrality simply by purchasing carbon credits, say by paying a third party to prevent deforestation in the Amazon. While a worthy venture, this still results in a net accumulation of GHG emissions within the atmosphere and does nothing to address the dangers lurking deep within the supply chain. To prevent catastrophic global warming, the world needs more than carbon neutral – it needs transformational decarbonisation (i.e. GHG emissions reductions) combined with a rollout of negative emissions technologies to neutralise residual GHG emissions.
Net zero is ultimately what is required. It ensures that businesses are actively decarbonising across all three scopes – hitting an annual reduction rate threshold for operational and value chain emissions that aligns with a credible pathway towards the goals of the Paris Agreement – whilst also investing in projects to balance any emissions that remain. This is why the net zero ambition is so critical for the digital industry: it forces businesses to take full responsibility for their material impacts, reduce emissions across all three scopes, and actively remove as much GHG as they emit. It’s the only way we’ll meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, which requires a global push towards net zero by 2050 if we’re to stand any chance of limiting global warming to below the 1.5°C target.
The digital industry faces a unique set of challenges on its decarbonisation journey; challenges fuelled in part by its own staggering success. Growth in the digital sector is accelerating at nearly six times that of the wider UK economy. But, traditionally, what’s good for economic growth is bad for the environment – so businesses must grapple with decoupling organisational growth from emissions growth. Meanwhile, the rise in machine learning and artificial intelligence – and the ever-growing environmental burdens of their colossal computing capabilities – brings its own impacts. A 2019 study found that training a single deep learning model generated 284 tonnes of CO2. This figure is likely to be dwarfed by today’s models: the computational resources necessary to power a best-in-class AI model double every 3-and-a-half-months. And then there’s the already widespread adoption of digital innovations like Bitcoin, Blockchain, and even the art world’s current NFT craze, which all leave a significant environmental scar. A single Bitcoin transaction is estimated to generate the same CO2e as 55,280 hours spent watching YouTube. The numbers are as dizzying as they are alarming.
But across the tech world, businesses are beginning to act. A number are rising to meet the urgent net zero challenge – grappling with the circumstances, and grasping the nettle in a way that puts other industries to shame. Of the top ten largest US companies by market value, just four have announced net zero targets. It’s revealing that all four are digital businesses: testament to the wider industry’s agility, ambition, and desire to be a driver for change.
Commendably, the industry’s major players are showing the leadership required. As one of the earliest adopters of carbon neutrality, Google have long flown the flag for sustainability within the sector, and last year claimed to have become the first major company to eliminate their legacy carbon emissions. They’re now building on this achievement by decarbonizing their global operations with the ambitious Google Carbon Free 24/7 plans. Facebook’s global operations are already fully supported by renewable energies. They have aligned their decarbonisation strategy with the recommendations of the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and have committed to net zero across their supply chains by 2030. Microsoft has arguably gone even further: aiming to become carbon negative by the end of the current decade. They’ve promised to remove their historical emissions by 2050, and have also pumped $1bn into a climate innovation fund designed to develop carbon removal technologies.
But it’s not just the heavyweights – there is a growing momentum throughout the digital industry. Tech Nation’s Tech Zero Taskforce – a newly formed collective of fast-growing UK tech companies working together to tackle the climate crisis – is attracting interest from across the sector. The likes of Bulb, Citymapper, Onfido, Revolut and a host of fintechs have joined as founder members, with the group aiming to get a thousand British tech firms on-board ahead of the COP26 Climate Conference later this year and promising to agree to bold climate commitments.
The message is cutting through: for those businesses that take their sustainability commitments seriously – which, in 2021, should frankly be all businesses – net zero is the minimum required. And with a number of its pioneering cohort now taking steps to go beyond net zero, the digital sector is leading the charge. As Microsoft acknowledged in their statement announcing their carbon negative plans: “Those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so.”
Don’t allow your digital business to get left behind.
Achieving net zero emissions can feel complex – so we’ve simplified it into a straight-forward 5-step that can be repeated on an annual basis:
Measure your emissions
First things first: measure your current emissions impact in their entirity. You’ll need full oversight of the depth and profile of your carbon footprint before you can effectively begin the process of decarbonising your business. Determine a baseline by looking at operational scope 1 and 2 emissions from 2019 (You’ll get a more accurate reading than 2020, with its year of office closures, limited business and grounded flights certain to skew readings significantly). Start with the basics: office electricity usage and heating, and move methodically on from there. Avieco’s Disclosure Service can help provide the full picture of your Scope 1 and 2 emissions by mapping and quantifying its impacts. With the UK’s SECR regulations expected to expand to capture further growth companies in the near future, the disclosure of this information will likely become mandatory anyway.
Next, you’ll need to take on the challenging task of mapping your Scope 3 emissions from across the value-chain. Scope 3 includes everything from the purchased goods and services you use to the investments you make. With their vast data storage and electricity usage, it’s little wonder that the majority of digital business emissions lie within their Scope 3. Take Microsoft: of the 16m tonnes of CO2e they emitted in 2019, Scope 1 emissions accounted for just 0.625% of this total, while an overwhelming 12m tonnes fell under its indirect Scope 3 activity. Engage with your suppliers and clients to account for the emissions embedded across the full value chain – including those from any third-party servers. Microsoft are doing just that, by engaging suppliers and partners and requesting that they align reporting boundaries and decarbonisation targets with Microsoft’s own boundaries and ambition levels.
This is a somewhat daunting job, but there’s help at hand. If you’re an Azure Enterprise customer then we recommend taking advantage of Microsoft’s Sustainability Calculator – a tool that tracks the emissions and energy usage related to account activity. Extended input-output models can offer a useful steer for those measuring Scope 3 for the very first time, and our team at Avieco can also support your business in approximating your Scope 3 before you’re able to gather the necessary primary data over time.
With a baseline measured, you’re in a strong position to set your targets. Formal targets are necessary to benchmark progress and to ensure that your commitments are truly credible. Digital businesses should align their strategies with the most rigorous pathways towards net zero – for example, by aligning themselves with the stringent Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). Over 200 UK businesses have already had their targets validated by the SBTi – including the BBC, HSBC, Tesco and other landmark figures in their respective fields – and the most credible have pathways in place to meet the IPCC’s 1.5°C scenario. The minimum level of ambition needs to be achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, though as we’ve seen from the likes of Google and Microsoft, many in the digital industry have already committed to going faster and further. Setting science-based targets will ultimately inform the scale and pace of the decarbonisation which you need to make in order to achieve net zero.
Now it’s time to decarbonize. The measures you need to take in order to achieve this will inevitably be influenced by your emissions profile. In terms of your direct operational impact, you should switch energy usage to renewables across your offices and direct infrastructure, which will take a significant chunk out of your Scope 1 and 2 emissions. You should also be making the transition of your server usage to renewable energy an absolute priority given the disproportionately intensive energy demands involved. Digital businesses will be well served in making the switch to the cloud. The cloud’s decarbonisation credentials are boosted by its vast economies of scale – which enable game-changing IT operational and infrastructure efficiencies.
But decarbonisation can take many forms. The design of your products or services can have a big impact on your footprint, as ‘in use’ emissions are also captured in Scope 3. You’ll be surprised at the difference small practical steps can make towards your efforts. The carbon intensity of websites and applications has flown under the radar for a long while, and the pursuit of improvement and attention-grabbing design has come at a cost. The average web page has four times more content on it than in 2010 – now producing 1.76g of CO2 with every view. Organizations like the Green Web Foundation are raising awareness by encouraging developers to create products with an eye towards the environment. Your business might want to follow in the slipstream of Volkswagen, which has stripped back the web pages advertising their electric vehicle fleet. Simple black and white text, standard fonts, low-resolution imagery, and clean code can all make a real difference. Examine every last inch of your footprint and trim the fat. Every kilobyte counts.
Finally, once all reasonable measures to decarbonise have been exhausted, you should be designing a neutralisation strategy to balance any residual emissions which cannot be decarbonised. High-quality carbon offsets are a common way of eliminating your remaining emissions. A wide range of options are available – from the restoration of precious peatlands to reforestation and the ubiquitous planting of trees, tapping into their remarkable carbon sequestering properties. Do your research and work with credible, respected partners. We can talk you through the options and help you choose the offset that works for you. Combined with an effective decarbonisation strategy, offsets can help get your emissions over the line to net zero. The routes via which companies can achieve neutralisation will evolve over the coming decade though. We’re working with clients to design their own bespoke neutralisation projects that drive carbon sequestration whilst also addressing broader environmental concerns such as biodiversity.
When it comes to its carbon footprint, it’s worth remembering that the digital industry is far from the worst offender. Yet as the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to gather pace, action must be taken today to manage its explosive growth. Tech-related emissions are rising by around 6% a year. Only six countries emit more carbon than the Internet. It accounts for roughly 3.8% of global carbon emissions, and – with an average 640,000 people jumping online for the very first time each and every day – this number is only going to grow unless drastic measures are taken. The journey to net zero and beyond will take a concerted, collective effort. Businesses will need to plot their own path, but the roadmap ahead is clear, and our team at Avieco is ready to support you along the way.
In our final piece in this series, we’ll look at the ways in which technology will itself play a key role in helping all organisations and economies reach that ambitious but achievable net zero goal. Those who enter the digital world are typically innovators. In the years ahead, we’re going to need them to be.
more than a word.