Can CIOs lead the charge towards NetZero?

As most of Europe experiences record temperatures, spontaneous house fires and water shortages, the issue of climate change is increasingly pronounced. While technology is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, it also offers both an opportunity and solution in tackling the crisis. What do tech leaders need to consider to reduce carbon and support the E in ESG initiatives?

Businessman in atlas pose carrying green globe with seedling plant on his shoulder

NetZero commitments have always been something of a political football. The UK Tory leadership contest to see who will be the country’s next Prime Minister is a sad example of how it is being used to gain popularity, with either those that believe climate change is real or those that somehow don’t. There is little conviction. The same can be said of a number of large corporations. As a New Climate Institute report found earlier this year, well known brands, such as Amazon, Ikea, Nestle and Unilever seem to be toying with the NetZero idea, perhaps for the sake of marketing and PR.

That’s the problem. How do businesses make real in-roads into reducing emissions and avoid accusations of greenwash? The first step is accepting responsibility and we need leaders that are prepared to stand up and take action. Outgoing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that the UK has “led the world” in tackling climate change is laughable. This and previous governments have made little, if any impact on tackling climate change.

Now, as most of Europe experiences record temperatures, spontaneous house fires and water shortages, the issue is more pronounced. Something needs to happen now and technology leaders can play a significant role in making the changes that can have a real difference. As McKinsey suggests in a recent article, “CIOs face increasing opportunities—and responsibilities—to lead transformation, particularly in achieving net-zero—or carbon negative—climate sustainability objectives.”

Technology is both an opportunity and solution in tackling climate change but it is also a risk. It comes with caveats. As the article continues, “IoT sensors, AI and advanced analytics, and blockchain-enabled technologies can be used in aggregating real-time data and optimizing processes to reduce environmental impact. At the same time, many argue some technology innovations have a cost of use as they boost demand on the power grid; CIOs need to balance those costs against the benefits of these technologies.”

At the recent IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona, this “cost of use” was discussed widely in open forums. There was recognition that the solution can also add to the problem, particularly in the area of dark data (broadly defined as the data stored by organisations that has little or no analytical value). While some dark data will no doubt be required for compliance purposes, many firms will be storing large amounts of data that they do not require. As we increasingly shift to automation using IoT sensors to collate data, this is a growing problem that needs addressing.

“IoT at the moment is generating 175 zettabytes of data,” says David McKee, founder and CEO of platform-as-a-service digital twin business Slingshot Simulations. “All the data we're capturing and storing, between 70 and 90 percent of it isn't being used for anything at all. It’s sitting there in the cloud, on hard drives burning carbon. It equates to roughly 6.4 million tonnes of carbon per year.”

It’s a difficult one for CIOs to deal with. On the one hand, IoT is seen as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs but on the other hand if you don’t need a lot of the data, you’re wasting money and increasing your carbon footprint.

It’s the sort of dilemma that the newly formed Responsible Computing Consortium will try and solve through invention and collaboration. According to Bill Hoffman, chairman and CEO, CIOs need help to not just meet carbon emissions targets but also to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. The three areas are connected. The consortium has the backing of IBM and Dell, among others and in July, at its inaugural meeting, it created four working groups to tackle key issues – data centres, infrastructures, application code and data usage and storage.

“If we can help CIOs do more with less, give them more efficiency, reduce costs and at the same time help them meet their ESG goals, then that’s a big win,” says Hoffman.

Like others in this space, Hoffman is not delusional. He recognises the challenge (Hoffman has plenty of experience in driving consortia and industry standards through standards development organisation OMG) and believes that economics has to play a major role in enabling businesses meet sustainability targets.

But it’s as much about finding technologies that can drive down organisational carbon emissions as it is finding technologies that are also sustainable. It’s a problem identified at a talk at IoT World Congress by Alicia Asín, CEO and co-founder of Libelium, a Spanish IoT and sensor company.

“It needs to be absolutely real and unconscious to say, we don't need to only help the world be more sustainable by enabling the technologies that will promote sustainable projects, but also let's make sure that the design of our solutions is sustainable.”

This moves onto the point that for CIOs to really get to grips with their own emissions, they need supply chain transparency on sustainability. According to Mattie Yeta, chief sustainability officer at IT consulting business CGI UK, it remains a key challenge, not just for CIOs but for businesses as a whole.

“The supply chain is a key example of where we will see sustainability and ethics merge as businesses look to work with others who will help them meet their own goals,” says Yeta. “Transparency in the supply chain will therefore continue to increase over the next few years, as it allows those who make decisions to ensure external and internal procurement align with the pledges made. Moreover, it allows organisations to demonstrate their carbon footprint to deliver on external pressures.”

So, as organisations look to tackle ESG issues and deliver on NetZero emission targets, what is the biggest challenge CIOs face? Culture? Regulation? Legacy IT? Lack of sustainable solutions on the market?

“Emerging technologies are at the forefront of organisations’ minds regarding immediately actionable ways of tackling ESG challenges, and more solutions are continuing to be released and adopted,” says Yeta, adding that CGI has launched the SEEDS programme, “to develop new innovations and solutions to challenge the thinking around sustainability and a ‘Nature-Based Digital Technology Ecosystem’ targeted at SMEs.”

Yeta says that among the barriers to ensuring ESG targets can be met is the accessibility and analysis of data surrounding the technologies being implemented. CIOs need proof of sustainability, for example, in the same way they would demand suggested ROI, uptime or scalability.

“Through emerging technology in AI and Machine Learning (ML), organisations can analyse the ever-increasing data and identify critical opportunities that the industry and organisations need to address to thrive and meet their targets,” says Yeta.

Cloud services are undoubtedly a large part of this. As pressure mounts to drive down emissions, so CIOs will have to start asking the right questions of suppliers. Cloud services can enable digital transformations. They can reduce remove reliance on legacy technologies and drive, in theory at least, more sustainable computing but CIOs need to demand the data to prove it. They have the ultimate angle here - purchasing power.

The good news, according to Google Cloud research at least, is that CIOs are getting CEO backing. Sustainability is apparently top of the agenda now but the bad news is that there is still a lack of action in tackling emissions and stopping accusations of greenwashing. The sooner CIOs own the NetZero agenda, the better.