Putting the digital economy’s emissions house in order

In a world plagued by climate change, it's vital that the digital industry's carbon footprint is reduced. So how can businesses measure and reduce their carbon footprint?

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“Every time you look at a website or an app, what you see is delivered by the transfer of data to your device,” says Neil Clark. “That transfer of data creates emissions.” 

Emissions that significant numbers of us probably don’t think about. We know that driving to work, catching a plane to attend a conference or even the simple act of buying a CD or purchasing imported fruit from a supermarket generates a carbon footprint. We may also have been told that data centres consume about 2 per cent of the world’s electricity output. And yet intuitively, attending that meeting via zoom or streaming an album seems cleaner and greener than jumping into a car to drive to a distant office block or purchasing a plastic-packaged CD.

The glass-half-full view is that digitisation is playing a key role in reducing emissions. According to the recently published Exponential Climate Action Roadmap report, digital innovation across a whole swathe of key industries could bring about a 15 per cent fall in emissions by 2030. This will be achieved by offering all of us more efficient ways to work, travel and consume. But it’s often forgotten that rising demand for digital services will mean more energy consumption along every point in the chain that runs from data centres through telecoms networks to devices. The digital industry has its own house to put in order.

Which is why Neil Clark, Service Design Lead at Manifestor Digital hosted a virtual seminar as part of London Climate Action Week (LCAW).  As he explains, the aim of the session was to draw attention to the carbon footprint of the digital industry while also pointing to ways and means to reduce energy consumption. “I saw London Climate Action Week as an opportunity to start a conversation,” he says. “Our event was about raising awareness and pointing out that it is possible to do something about emissions.”

Beyond the data centres

You could argue that the carbon footprint of the digital economy has been widely discussed, with the power consumption of data centres a particular focus of attention. But Clark was keen to look beyond the server farms and open up a discussion about the role developers can play in helping us all move to a greener planet. “Data centres are actually pretty efficient,” he says, “And I don’t think we should be putting the onus on individuals to change what they do. I think pressure can be best applied to website owners.” 

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