Every time you send an email, IM (Instant Message) a colleague, log into a Zoom call, or upgrade your company laptop, you contribute to a traceable ‘digital carbon footprint.’ Every year, the proliferation of digital tools grows exponentially – and consequently, the growing digital momentum in a post-2020 landscape calls for business leaders to address digital carbon footprint in earnest.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the world saw images of smog-less cities and clearer waterways, in part because people scaled back their carbon-intensive travel and commuting. But there was a tradeoff, as there was simultaneously a surge in digital activity (World Economic Forum). Internet use alone rose by 70%, highlighting the staggering impact of our ‘new normal’ on digital carbon footprint (Forbes).
However, despite growing interest in mitigating emissions from digital activity, the challenge is knowing where to start. The lack of coherent methodologies and tools to calculate digital carbon footprints poses a significant barrier and hinders progress toward shared decarbonization goals. To meet our carbon negative goals, ENGIE Impact adopted a rigorous approach to calculate our own digital carbon footprint and initiated a series of actions to mitigate it. We're excited to share that journey with you.
A company's digital carbon footprint refers to all the direct and indirect emissions related to various digital usages.
Digital technologies have discrete yet vital roles to play in mitigating emissions and helping us move toward a circular economy (UN). It is also essential to raise awareness of how those technologies can help tackle climate change's significant global challenges and build a sustainable future. Companies across the world are looking to better understand the carbon impact of their digital footprint.
Recent research estimates that the ICT sector is responsible for 1.4% of current global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and predicts the sector will be responsible for 1.97% of global emissions by 2030. While this increase may seem small on a global scale, for companies, emissions stemming from ICT products and services can play a key role in their decarbonization journey. We found in our own analysis this activity accounted for 10% of our total carbon footprint. This percentage will be higher for larger businesses and companies in technology-intensive industries.
While calculating a corporate carbon footprint is common, it is complex, and there are often pitfalls and limitations. The GHG protocol serves as a foundational guide that requires interpretation to apply to a specific context. In ENGIE Impact's case, our in-house carbon team took an innovative approach to identify areas of improvement, allowing for actions that require the next level of granularity. Going beyond a top-level summary of carbon footprints, we defined digital as a sub-set of our emissions and are pursuing accurate reporting of our digital carbon footprint.
Meanwhile, the ICT sector is evolving rapidly, which can make historical analysis insufficient for calculations. We felt the weight of this challenge but proactively responded by assembling an internal task force to engage experts within and outside the organization and develop a plan for accelerated decarbonization of our digital carbon footprint.
Governance: Enterprise IT, Corporate Sustainability and Carbon Accounting teams
Goal: Enhancing granularity of data collection efforts; evaluate and recommend mitigation options.
Process: Meet on a biweekly basis sharing findings, data and information that would help us perform a more comprehensive GHG assessment of our ICT usage. In addition, engage with our third-party cloud and data center providers to better understand our share of emissions when using their services. Engage with internal and external stakeholders to identify and implement mitigation options.
In the absence of well-established ICT emission calculation tools in the market, we engaged a diverse team of stakeholders to build our own rigorous methodology, implemented accelerated mitigation programs, and developed new tools to simplify this challenge for ourselves and our clients.
Following a "spend-based method," we were able to estimate digital activities' contribution to our total carbon footprint. Consequently, we knew digital would be a critical lever to address in our sustainability transformation – one that would require charting unfamiliar territory. Our experts vigorously set out in an uncertain, dynamic, and digitally saturated atmosphere to mitigate emissions at the pace and scale necessary to meet our goal to be carbon negative by 2021, and we are sharing our process here for others to follow:
As with many data-driven organizations, our digital footprint comprises several categories: (1) end-user hardware devices and upkeep, (2) on-site servers, (3) third-party cloud services and data centers, (4) data flow over the internet, (5) proprietary software solutions developed for our clients, and (6) e-waste. To build a solid foundation, we strategically focused on the first four categories as data was more readily available for meticulous emissions calculations. We found that varying local regulations and vendor contracts across the globe posed an obstacle in our e-waste collection efforts, requiring a more in-depth analysis. E-waste and software design will be a core focus during the second phase of this exercise.
Our team of experts engaged with an ecosystem of key stakeholders, including:
Data collection complexity is exacerbated by the lack of a standardized digital GHG calculation methodology to outline data requirements. Simultaneously, the urgent need for innovative digital decarbonization solutions is becoming increasingly apparent. Our carbon team facilitated the measurement of the impact of ICT on emissions to drive meaningful data analytics and reporting, establishing a strong business case to support informed decision making. Below is a sample of critical areas of focus and the approach we took to measure each area's impact on total emissions as we developed a holistic, sustainable IT strategy.
Task: Evaluate our ICT hardware procurement practices (including monitors, tablets, phones, prints, and printers).
Task: Determine total energy consumption.
Task: Estimate electricity and HVAC (Heating Ventilation & Air Conditioning) consumption.
An initial screening assessment for ICT products and services identified the significant emissions sources and helped strategically focus our efforts towards the most material areas. While doing so, considering unique organizational requirements and challenges was vital to implement impactful activities. In parallel, ensuring adoption across our locations worldwide through sharing regular tips and recommendations will go a long way in facilitating the necessary behavioral change.
We implemented new procedures that will optimize cost performance and carbon reduction. Below is a sample of insights and recommendations as we continuously evolve:
In commitment to our mission to make sustainability happen today, we cannot let perfection be the enemy of good. Assessing change in employee behaviors is not an exact science, as it is difficult to estimate the effects accurately. Change is a long-term process, not a short-term event. To establish a concrete and realistic baseline against which to calculate the impact of behavioral change on our digital carbon footprint, we facilitated a series of targeted campaigns to raise awareness and provide motivation rooted in positive thinking. By incrementally sharing crucial information and concrete actions, while also asking employees to take a ‘pledge’ to change their behavior, we are laying the groundwork for long-lasting benefits. Our overarching goal is to empower our employees to make informed decisions and effectively use the IT infrastructure (hardware/software) that the company provides, as well as their personal devices.
Looking ahead, implications from the COVID-19 crisis and remote working will continue to increase the need for sustainable ICT solutions and coherent measurement tools. A third of the world's workforce is expected to keep working from home at least part of the time post-crisis. We have developed practical guidelines, tools, and mathematical methodologies and are actively helping our clients understand how to gather data sources to reduce their digital GHG emissions at the rate needed to meet their overall carbon reduction targets.
The authors extend their gratitude to Damien Lieber, Heather Aaron and TJ Smith for their valuable contribution and feedback on the insights presented in this article.
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