Reflections on COP26
Technology alone will not be able to solve the potential global catastrophe the planet has stored up for the future. However, it is clear that it has a significant and positive contribution to offer – either by reducing carbon emissions (or removing stored carbon) or serving up detailed analyses of activities (such as global mapping of carbon emissions) to inform both policymakers and businesses.
My UKCloud colleagues and I were pleased to be invited to support the DEFRA E-Sustainability Alliance at COP26 in Glasgow recently: a heady combination of exhibitions and seminars which brought many of the key players in the technology industry together to discuss and understand the role it must play in supporting global net-zero carbon ambitions. Here are our findings from an educational and informative week focused on tackling climate change.
To move towards realising our climate ambitions, three groups need to coordinate their efforts. Governments and policymakers need to understand the steps required to change national and international activities and behaviours. For example, using Science Based Targets and other data to ensure that the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels are met, and taking steps to limit warming to 1.5°C. Businesses and industries need to assess and adjust their own activities so that they can support both their own and their host country’s net-zero carbon ambitions – whether that is for 2030, 2040 or 2050 – and to publicly declare their intentions on websites such as Climate Pledge and the UK Business Climate Hub amongst many others. Thirdly, we need to ensure that individual citizens understand what needs to happen and ease the options for them to modify their individual activities and behaviours to reduce their personal carbon footprint by seeking out and selecting the most sustainable alternatives.
Many organisations today are measuring and reducing their carbon emissions, and possibly offsetting any residual carbon footprint by investing in clean technologies in developing countries. To achieve a carbon net-zero position, we should be reaching higher, for a position where no carbon emissions are being released into the atmosphere. One key area is to power our organisations from 100% renewable energy sources, which means that carbon offsetting activities will no longer be necessary. Whilst it may take some years yet to achieve carbon net-zero, carbon offsetting in validated, evidence-based schemes will remain an important control activity for the near future.
Much was spoken at COP26 about the role of technologies in providing low or no-carbon alternatives to conventional ICT estates. During my presentation, I encouraged cloud service consumers to be inquisitive of their cloud service providers. Do they have the capability to accurately equate cloud service consumption into carbon emissions? Do they willingly share that data with their customers? And are they going one step further to help customers offset or reduce those carbon emissions to zero? Earlier this year, the UK Government introduced the requirement for certain organisations to publish their annual carbon reduction plans, as outlined in PPN 06/21. UKCloud is proud to abide by this, publishing our annual reduction plans on our website , providing customers with another reference point for detailed environmental performance data.
Following my presentation, many questions were asked about the challenges of using cloud services in an environmentally responsible manner, and the steps we need to take to ensure we are not building up a further environmental challenge for future generation. Throughout COP26’s many activities, the responsible use of IT was frequently raised.
Several delegates I spoke to readily identified with the ease that vast volumes of data and code can be migrated into cloud hosted environments – with the efficiency, cost-saving and increased security controls making this a sensible option. However, there is a fine line between using the cloud efficiently and simply offloading data into the cloud. The organisation ClimateCare reports that cloud and internet-based services are already producing 3.7% of global carbon emissions: if “Global IT” were a country, it would rank third for carbon emissions, just behind China and the USA.
Therefore, we must remain aware that our IT workloads need to be carefully monitored and managed, especially if they are “out of sight, out of mind” in somebody else’s cloud services. For example, developers creating multiple duplicate databases, snapshots of virtual machines, retaining numerous previous versions of code and the retention of huge activity log data files may be needed and important. Yet it is easy to see how, if left unchecked, the associated use of IT assets and their power/cooling needs to support them may be challenging our environmental ambitions. Do they all need to be kept online and available for such long time periods?
As a side note, do not overlook that we also have data retention and data minimisation requirements such as those mandated within GDPR to manage. Cloud usage should be understood by its consumers and carefully monitored to ensure that it does not become a data graveyard for the future. It is important to proactively manage our data in all its forms, especially in the cloud.
The term takes inspiration from the efforts of the “Digital Clean Up Day” organisation, whose informative website provides numerous examples of how seemingly tiny data interactions by individual citizens are already adding up to significant global carbon emissions. For example, they highlight the difference in carbon usage between using a webcam on a conference call against using audio options, and at the other extreme that the energy used for mining Bitcoins is reported to be more than New Zealand consumes in a whole year!
Similarly, of the 281 billion daily emails sent, how many are simply “Thanks”, “Noted”, “Agreed” etc. Let’s be clear, excessive email retention, mobile device cloud-based backups, the retention of smartphone apps that you never use are just a very few examples of the many day-to-day activities which most of us are guilty of – yet combined challenge our net-zero ambitions. We all have a role to play in reducing our carbon footprint and when it comes to technology a lot of it means being more proactive in how we use and store our data.
What should your organisation be doing to ensure your colleagues understand the environmental impact of their work activities, however small and insignificant they seem? Ultimately encouraging good behaviours and educating our workforce will reduce costs and carbon emissions, and in many cases will transfer to how individuals manage their personal or home IT devices too.
Quoting former US President Barrack Obama from his COP26 speech on 8th November:
“This is not just about raw numbers. This is not just about science. This is about politics. It’s about culture. It’s about morality. It’s about the human dynamic. How do we work together to get a big thing done? And it’s about participation and power.”
We understand that the clock is ticking. Technology is already facilitating climate action and will make a significant contribution to whether we are able to achieve our net-zero carbon ambitions or not. Understand it well and use it wisely to ensure we are not creating environmental challenges for our children and future generations.