Our shared sustainability challenge: How co-operation and collaboration will be crucial to delivering a green future in the technology sector.

Martin Courtney, Principal Analyst, Tech Market View

Martin has been undertaking detailed research of the ICT market for the past 10 years, specialising latterly in data centre and cloud services, connectivity (enterprise and telco) and the related security issues. Martin monitors market trends to identify and explain disruptive technologies and their effect on both the market and the players.

Assessing your own performance is usually a much easier challenge than gauging the performance of others, even when you or your organisation work closely with them.

For technology businesses seeking to measure their own environmental footprint, understanding the impact of their own business is much more straightforward than making the same assessment across an entire supply chain.

But if the technology sector is to continue the good work it has already put into meeting ambitious carbon neutrality targets – to deliver a net zero carbon footprint by the second half of the 21st century – businesses must collaborate to build a shared understanding of what sustainability actually is and be prepared to share more detailed information on their own carbon footprints.

The progress and limitations in the technology sector’s achievements can be seen in the experience of data centres. Estimated to have consumed a full 1% of the world’s electricity in 2018, data centres have already evolved standards to measure energy efficiency (the PUE rating system, for example). Yet owners and operators still need to improve the quality and transparency of their data.

The UK Government Digital Service (GDS), which formed a sustainability network to help the department reduce greenhouse gas emissions late last year, started with an analysis of how its data centre providers source their electricity. To that end, the GDS asked its hosting providers for data on the electricity used to maintain its workload infrastructure and the resultant CO2 emissions involved, but found only one of four could provide the information, leaving the GDS to estimate the emissions produced by the data centre capacity it leases from the other three.

Net zero and embodied carbon measurement

A major obstacle for businesses seeking to make net zero a reality is that sustainability ratings and certification frameworks rarely focus on measuring any one organisation’s ability to reach “net zero” – achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal as part of efforts to limit global warming to 1.5C.

In the absence of clear, enforceable rules and standardised regulations that mandate the strict monitoring and disclosure of supply chain emissions, businesses must instead participate in less comprehensive voluntary arrangements. Faced with this challenge, one possible solution is for companies to make more detailed assessments by measuring a “unitised” carbon footprint that publishes the CO2 emissions embodied within each product or service that they deliver, enabling customers to include this in their own reporting.

Promoting a sense of shared responsibility down the supply chain can help ensure greater transparency and data sharing, but it does not necessarily provide the information required for any one stakeholder to make an informed calculation. Some tech businesses already have established internal policies which mandate that they will work only with suppliers willing and able to demonstrate they are compliant with specific social and environmental standards and publicly disclose the results. Many are members of the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA), which alongside thousands of associated tier 1 suppliers adheres to a code of conduct that calls for the completion of risk profiles and audit plans, the implementation of some data sharing metrics and submission to audits from other RBA members. Yet those members are still not required to publish embodied carbon ratings in their products and services, making it difficult for others in the supply chain to make accurate measurements of their own. This is despite the British Standards Institution already offering the PAS 2060 specification, which provides a way to demonstrate carbon neutrality.

Looking ahead, the tech sector could benefit from the sort of framework being proposed in the construction industry. Last year saw the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) publish a report – ‘Bringing embodied carbon upfront’ – that sets out how the buildings and infrastructure industry can reduce embodied carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 and help reach 100% net zero emissions by 2050. Much of that strategy relies on measuring the full lifecycle impact of building projects, and promoting greater awareness, transparency and disclosure on emissions found in material and construction processes. A similar approach within the tech sector could provide the direction needed to achieve net zero, building on the progress already made.

Looking to the future

Greater use of blockchain too can make a difference, by making it easier for manufacturers and suppliers to trace components and materials through the supply chain. Mercedes Benz is already conducting a trial of a distributed digital ledger to measure emissions of climate-relevant gasses and the volume of recycled materials used in the lithium-ion batteries destined for its electric vehicles, where cobalt is one of the key minerals used in their manufacture. The World Economic Forum has also launched a blockchain track and trace platform designed to help companies track supply chain sustainability in the manufacture of batteries and textiles.

Technology can play its part, but ultimately it will take an open, trusted ecosystem of partners willing and able to share data to deliver the supply chain sustainability needed to preserve the planet’s biodiversity.

Related Resources

Sustainability – Digital Society

Becoming a leader in decarbonised digital

Digital Society

Exploring the role of technology in a changing world

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