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InfoQ Homepage Articles Techstinction - How Technology Use is Having a Severe Impact on our Climate and What We Can Do

Techstinction - How Technology Use is Having a Severe Impact on our Climate and What We Can Do

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Key Takeaways

  • Be aware of how our technology habits and working practices impact climate change
  • See how globally renowned technology firms can massively reduce their carbon footprint by being "Eco by default"
  • Appreciate the importance of all enterprises adopting an energy efficient culture
  • Understand how energy efficiency applies to all architectural disciplines
  • Realise why accelerating Cloud and Digital Transformation needs to be every organisation’s top priority

Back in the early 80’s, things were more than a little different. My parents were very much working class and whilst we knew money didn’t grow on trees, myself and my brother seemed to get everything we needed and often wanted, but didn’t need.
 
An example of that was when we were given a Sinclair ZX81, one of the first widely available home computers.  

The ZX81 came with a whopping 1K of memory so there wasn’t too much you could do with it initially, plus my programming skills didn’t stretch much further than:

10  PRINT "Keith is a wally"
20 GOTO 10
RUN

... that was until we got the 16K RAM pack!

This was literally a gamechanger (providing it stayed in place). Suddenly our ZX81 was a games machine to rival the Atari. I will never forget when my cousin John showed me 3D monster maze.

Obviously things have moved on a bit since then but at the time, playing a game which truly felt 3D was incredible. And to achieve it with 16K was a fantastic achievement.
I guess you could call my brother and I "care free", so when my mum and dad got frustrated on a regular basis for leaving the lights on and/or not shutting doors when we left a room we didn’t quite "Get it".

"Shut the **** door!! If you leave that door open one more time we’ll turn the heating off!" – Dad used to shout.

They never did, despite my lack of ability to follow this direction.  

It wasn’t until three decades later, shortly before my Dad passed away, I really understood why this was important to him. We were both laughing about how annoyed he seemed to get as a result of my disregard for the costs of keeping our house lit and warm at night-time, but he then explained this was part of the reason why some years our vacations lasted one week rather than two. I left my dad that day feeling incredibly sad, and also a little angry. Sad that I had been part of the reason why we lost valuable family time that we could never get back. Angry because my parents didn’t make me aware of the consequences of my actions, instead deciding to sugar coat reality, albeit out of love.

Ever since then you could say I’ve been very conscious of costs, frugality not just with my own money but frugal with those I work for. For example, most people who know me will have heard me. on more than one occasion promote the use of schedulers to stop and start cloud servers when not in use. I’ve helped organisations save several hundred thousand pounds by a simple practice of putting these in place alone.

But more recently, I’ve been focussing on a far more important type of cost, that being, the energy consumption used by technology and its cost to our planet on Climate Change.

The simple facts are the energy we are consuming globally is not sustainable, with only 11% coming from renewable sources, most of the energy we use increases our CO2 emissions which is the major contributor to global warming. If we carry on this way by the end of the century 75% of the world will experience life threatening weather events on a regular basis.

If you look at some statistics, such as CO2 emissions by country, some people would be forgiven to think that this is only a problem for those countries that are considered to be the highest energy consumers, and there is very little that anyone else can do about it.

This couldn't be further from the truth, many of the things that we do online and the choices we now make when we use technology have a huge cost to our environment associated with them when you consider the combined effects of billions of people across the world with similar behaviour.

I think Mike Berners-Lee puts this into context perfectly:
 

"When you are typing, your device is using electricity, when you press send it goes through the network, and it takes electricity to run the network. And it’s going to end up being stored on the cloud somewhere, and those data centres use a lot of electricity. We don’t think about it because we can’t see the smoke coming out of our phones or laptops, but the carbon footprint of IT is huge and growing."

Mike Berners-Lee
Writer/Professor and Fellow of the Institute for Social Sciences at Lancaster University

A few facts:

  • If every adult in the UK sent 1 less "unnecessary" email a day it would save over 16,000 tons of Carbon a year. That’s equivalent to over 80,000 flights from London to Madrid.
  • Netflix published it’s CO2 emissions for the first time in March this year. The 1,100,000 tons of CO2 it produced in 1 year is equivalent to having 360,000 additional cars on the road in the UK each year.
  • Depending on the research you look at, using the Internet accounts for 2-3.7% of our global energy consumption. That is on par with the aviation industry.

Various reports suggest the Internet’s energy consumption is likely to double by 2025 if society goes unchecked and carries on it’s current unconscious consumption trajectory.

The stark reality of it is, much more so than the coronavirus pandemic, climate change threatens all of us, regardless of boundary and we are sleepwalking into it.  
Being more conscious in how we use tech in every aspect of our lives would go a long way to stop us destroying the planet.  

Look, I am far, far, far from being the ultimate eco-warrior. I would consider myself an "average" consumer of internet enabled services in UK terms. I love watching films, shows, documentaries, talks and all sorts of silliness my friends send me. I’m passionate about music and enjoy staying connected with my people. My recent work has involved organising conferences, promoting is part of the process, as is maintaining an online presence with my community.

As a consumer, I’m not suggesting we have to stop doing things we enjoy online, although we should all be aware that there is a related climate cost to almost everything we do so asking ourselves:
"Do I need to do that?" 
"Do I need to send that mail?"
"Do I need to check my Facebook feed for the tenth time today?"
"Do I need to have every speaker in the house playing Chaka Khan song radio at level 10?"

… well, maybe occasionally the answer is yes, I totally do need to do that, but I’d like to think more often than not we could learn to say no to ourselves and maybe, just maybe, take a little break and go offline for a while.

All the decisions the billions of us internet users collectively make with regards to our online behaviour, good and bad, has an impact on the planet, we need to be conscious of that. And with this consciousness must come expectation on technology companies and corporates to make it much easier for consumers to be eco-friendly by default, to be self-aware of their own carbon footprint and do as much as they can to reduce it. For example:

  • WhatsApp is an amazing way of communicating, but does it need to send that 2Mb picture you’ve just taken of your cat in all it’s glory on your cool smartphone or will resizing it by default to 200K be good enough for the majority of its 300 million active users?
  • Zoom calls have helped everyone get through the pandemic and reduced travel needs, but does everyone need to be on screen all the time or by default could only people speaking be seen during the majority of the 3.3 trillion minutes people spend on its platform annually?
  • iPhones are cool, but does Apple need to purposely slow down older phones with Operating system updates or could they actually make their existing 700+ million phones function the same or faster than before without the need to purchase the latest model?
  • It’s really easy to find examples of energy efficiency improvements like this for consumable tech, where tech companies and the millions of technologists in the corporate world need to step up.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, what lies beneath the surface in many large organisations are hundreds of internal systems which are intended to support products used by their customers or the operations of the business.

These by nature, are very murky waters. Many organisations existed long before the age of the computer, let alone internet. Decades old applications which no one fully understands how they work, company mergers, team reorganisation, changes in client needs, changes in strategy or regulation, duplicated functionality in multiple systems, culture, degrees of automation, new tech and better ways of working are just a few of the factors which can add to this murkiness. It’s therefore unsurprising that these companies have a much larger impact on the environment than they need to.

Let’s take a look at the Financial Service Industry as a case in point. I’m choosing that as it’s an industry I have 20+ years experience in, starting out as a programmer which led onto management of global development teams and to roles which influenced how the whole institution delivered software. Financial Services also has some transparency in organisations annual CO2 emissions reporting, in the UK at least.  

Looking at 2019 pre-pandemic CO2 emissions in Ktons (1000 Tons), Barclays (274), Standard Chartered (242) and Royal Bank of Scotland (191) have a combined carbon footprint greater than The Gambia (592), a country with a population of over 2.3 million people.

Like most large organisations, there is a general consciousness of the impact the Financial Services Industry is having on the environment. All three of these banks are taking serious measures to reduce their CO2 emissions and to change the behaviours of their staff. The Natwest group (who own RBS) for example recently published a working from home guide to their employees containing tips on how to save energy. Whilst this and all sustainability measures should be applauded, it’s important to acknowledge that "Sustainability in our work place" is very different and less important than "sustainability in our work", simply because there is more to be gained by optimising what we are doing as opposed to where we do it, both financially and for the environment. Sustainability in our work involves being lean in everything we do, including the hardware infrastructure being used, being completely digital in the services provided as well as how we produce software to deliver these services.  

All the major cloud providers invest heavily in providing energy efficient infrastructure as well using renewable energy sources. You only need to look at Google’s climate commitments to see how serious they take it. This is "next level" compared to most organisations. Those which maintain their own datacentres often contain much older, inefficient hardware so migrating workloads to the cloud really is a no-brainer from an environment perspective. Unfortunately, many of the bigger financial institutions are lagging behind, with some reports suggesting UK banks have as little as 10% of their workloads running in the cloud.

In addition to Cloud migration programs, most of the major banks are still in the process of digital transformation. Whilst for some services, such as providing monthly customer account statements, this has become largely paperless, it’s not the case across the board. For example, many investment bank clients still receive paper trade confirmations for every trade they have asked the bank to execute on their behalf, even though in most cases the option to email these confirmations exists. When you consider this involves 100s of clients doing 100s of trades every working day, the energy unnecessarily used to print, put them in envelopes and airmail them around the globe is a colossal waste. Clearly, there is a need to accelerate the move away from paper-based systems.

And whilst becoming cloud based and digital are important outcomes, how we get there and deliver any sort of value matters too. Servers, storage and network performance continues to increase exponentially whilst at the same time initial procurement costs fall. Very few people involved in delivering customer value consider the run time costs of what they build mainly because they don’t get to see the cost to their company or the environmental impact. Not surprisingly, this leads to a multitude of bad behaviours across technical, application, data, business and enterprise architecture disciplines such as:

  • Applications which are only required in business hours but are never turned off (intentionally)
  • User interfaces which request data from services thousand’s times more than they need to.
  • Systems that are reliant on terabytes of data and or generate similar volumes of data unnecessarily.
  • Software which has copied other systems implementation of a business process rather than working with customers to deliver services which meet their needs in the best way possible.
  • The creation and maintenance of multiple systems, services and code which provide identical functionality rather than one system used by everyone.

All of these inefficiency examples consume more energy than necessary and when they are present many times in many companies, their impact is huge. Addressing them saves organisations money as well as reduces environmental impact.

And the list is by no means exhaustive.

If something as wonderful as 3D Monster Maze can be achieved using just 16K then surely the developers of Call of Duty Modern Warfare can create a download which is a little less than 220Gb.

These things matter when 30M copies have been sold.

So where does that leave us?

If we are capable of getting to the moon and back in the 1960s then surely 50 years on we are capable of coming together to reverse climate change?

I hope that having read this article that you are conscious that what we do inside and outside work with technology makes a big difference to the environment. That we can’t wait for change, we’ve all got to change our behaviour and be aware that most interactions with technology have a cost to the environment.

As a society, we need to demand organisations make it easier to be eco-friendly, maybe a bit like the warnings on a cigarette packet, make it easier to understand the damage we are doing by not?

I wish I had the awareness 30 years ago, my parents would have had a little more money and I could have had more time with my family. And whilst our actions now could also save money, much, much more is at stake.

Please share this with your colleagues, managers, friends and family, think about what you can do and act on it. I would love to hear about it too.  

This is happening on our watch. Our actions will define our legacy. I want to see future generations be able to enjoy our environment, not be in fear of it.

That’s why I’ve created ourtechlegacy.org, a not-for-profit organisation to create awareness of the impact we all have on the climate when we use technology, to educate people how to deliver more eco-friendly products and services and support organisations in doing so.

The mission of ourtechlegacy.org is to work with industry to be free of carbon emissions across the internet and all technology used by enterprises as quickly as possible.
We are meeting up in September to start our mission. This will only work if everyone plays their part, starting by subscribing to our mailing list so you and encouraging everyone you wish to share this with to do the same.

Let’s act now, as our highest priority, before it’s too late.

10 Actions organisations can take to reduce their impact on the climate

  1. Adopt an energy efficiency "Do More With Less" culture - Ensure everyone in the organisation is aware of how technology is contributing to global warming and prioritises energy efficiency in the work they do.  
  2. Measure and share energy consumption - Measure, benchmark and publish energy consumption metrics so as to expose the highest consumers and optimise.
  3. "Turn off the lights" - If your infrastructure and/or software is not required 24*7, implement schedulers to power up and down accordingly.
  4. Move workloads to the Cloud - Cloud providers offer far better energy efficient and climate friendly infrastructure than most organisations private data centers,  
  5. Accelerate digital transformation - Optimise the user experience, reduce waste and any reliance on physical media (e.g. Paper).
  6. Remove duplicate processing - Ideally there should be only one service that performs a specific function.
  7. Design systems to operate with the least data possible - Systems which are designed to keep a complete history of all transactional data will not scale from an energy efficiency perspective.
  8. "Eco-by-default" - Create technology services with energy efficiency options and enable them by default on the initial deployment.
  9. Build and deploy only what’s changed - Continually rebuilding and deploying an entire application can be very CPU intensive.
  10. Rightsize your infrastructure and scale horizontally - Choose infrastructure which meets your known performance requirements with horizontal scaling capabilities to manage increased demand.

About the Author

Having organised DevOpsDays London in 2016, set up his own Enterprise Agility meetup group .and conference the following year, Barry Chandler has become a leading figure in the UK’s DevOps community. Aside from training and building communities, Barry spends his time advising global enterprises on approach to DevOps and continual transformation, focusing on Purpose, Value and Outcomes. Spanning a career of over 26 years, he has worked in several different industries as an independent consultant, for consultancies as well as a company employee. For many years Barry was a hands-on application engineer which led into capacity, stability, development and delivery management roles. More recently, Barry has been researching technologies impact on climate change. Staggered with what he is finding, he founded ourtechlegacy.org to promote awareness, educate and help address energy inefficiencies within enterprises.

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