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Information And Communication Technology Emissions: How Onboarding New Technology Can Negate Climate Impact

As global attention focuses on sustainable practices in the wake of COP26, businesses need to seek ways to cut their carbon emission output and reduce their overall environmental impact. Under particular scrutiny is the sourcing of sustainable materials, transitioning to renewable energy, and reducing the energy expenditure of day-to-day utilities. But what about our use of information and communication technology (ICT)?

Posted: 25th January 2022 by Finance Monthly
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Why ICT operations must be at the forefront of climate change improvement

Compared to fast fashion, fishing with nets, or drilling for oil, the use of ICT and its relationship to carbon emissions is not a well-trodden narrative. However, ICT is expected to soak up 21% of electrical consumption by 2030, with the sector demanding between 5-9% of electrical use worldwide, equating to 3.5% of emissions globally. With internet use increasing by as much as 78% in the last year, mainly due to the pandemic, and a global trend of technological reliance, the environmental effect needs to be understood and efforts should be made to reduce the impact. 

Because ICT has driven innovation that has such a positive impact on personal, social and business operations globally, its utility has often overshadowed the detriment it may have on the environment. However, just like other sectors battling to improve their carbon footprint, there are methods, practices and, indeed, technological changes that can greatly offset ICT’s carbon emissions. 

Storage use and the need to migrate

Legacy systems for businesses such as banks have long relied on domestically owned, stored and operated hardware to facilitate their business operations. Naturally, with these systems in place, their implementation follows a long-standing and often out-of-date methodology that is ill-equipped to adopt new, environmentally friendlier technologies as they arise. Similarly, these systems fall short of optimisation and scaling opportunities when compared to newer advancements, since the legacy hardware operates at a maximum capacity. This means that the energy requirements of the legacy hardware cannot be reduced in line with business needs or market fluctuations, and the opportunity to save energy is lost.

To counter the environmental impact of these legacy systems (and see increases in operational efficiency, effectiveness, scaling and faster time-to-market), those still using physical, on-site hardware need to explore the possibilities provided by cloud storage technologies.

In recent research we conducted on cloud technology and banking institutions, we found that 81% of respondents had adopted cloud technologies to save costs, while 95% cited the increased time-to-market of cloud and 86% said the key benefit was the virtually unlimited scaling opportunity. This trend is complemented across businesses more generally, with 50% of businesses using the cloud to store company data in 2021, an increase of 20% when compared to 2015. 

Migrating from physical storage to a flexible cloud infrastructure also reduces the need to add additional systems as time goes by, thereby promoting a strategy for the long-term improvement of sustainability practices. Google is a great example of a cloud provider that has invested huge sums into making its operations sustainable and has used carbon offsetting to compensate for all of the carbon it has ever created. By 2030 their goal is to run all its servers using 100% carbon-free energy, meaning their customers can tap into Google’s green credentials to support their own sustainability journey. 

Appropriate technical architecture

Excess code is an underestimated but invasive principle of business technology. Often, the technical make-up of websites, machinery or ICT software has unnecessary code that lengthens the processing time and data transmission of an operation. With longer processing times comes more power usage, hindering business efficiency and cost-saving opportunities. 

With an increased focus on inefficient coding and its effect on ICT’s environmental impact, the concept of ‘green coding’ is gaining increased traction. Green coding concentrates on coding efficiency and aims to provide systems and guidelines to ensure a business’ ICT architecture is as efficient as possible, with the ambition being to lower power usage, processing time, and therefore overall energy consumption. The outlook for ICT needs to change – processes should be updated to use the absolute minimum energy required to fulfil their function, before shutting down until required again.

Every small gain that can be achieved in reducing processing energy, will ultimately support a large reduction in carbon footprint.

Energy proportionality

Most IT systems within banks and many other organisations have historically lacked the ability to efficiently manage their energy consumption, or have the ability to react to market fluctuations. The energy used by core ICT systems is therefore often ‘fixed’ and not proportionate to the utilisation of those systems. The concept is known as ‘energy proportionality’, whereby utilisation levels can be measured as a percentage of utilised computing power. While high utilisation is the objective, low utilisation is still the norm and is usually a result of an overestimation of how much software and therefore server capacity is required or will be used. Energy proportionality can also be exacerbated when there are multiple software and ICT operations taking place, or where replicated data centres or resiliency is felt to be required.

 Adopting a combination of cloud technology and green coding can reduce the disparity of projected and actual utilisation. While green coding ensures that the delivery of software applications is as efficient as possible, cloud technology is capable of providing real-time changes to storage and processing capabilities as markets, traffic or software usage changes. This approach has huge benefits for cost-cutting, as migrating to cloud systems usually means you can also adopt a ‘pay-as-you-go’ cost structure for your data processing and storage requirements. Having automated power output based on actual energy expenditure is capable of eradicating overestimations for energy use, thereby saving energy consumption and promoting high utilisation as a result.

Streamlining operations for the future

Advancements in storage technology utilising the cloud, allows many businesses to tap into the efficient, low-energy consuming infrastructure, streamlining their operations and achieving maximum efficiency. Not only will this help firms lower their carbon emissions output by reducing unnecessary power usage, but can also allow them to improve the effectiveness of their systems and processes to save time and costs whilst supporting scaling opportunities and reducing time-to-market. 

Combined with the growing knowledge of green coding principles, the cloud can be used in conjunction with precise technical architecture to provide firms with improved efficiency for their business in both an operational and environmental sense.

All of those within the ICT sector have a responsibility to streamline their emissions output and using these technologies and disciplines is a clear-cut method to fulfil this ambition. 

About the author: Dean Clark is Chief Technology Officer at GFT.

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