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How can corporations reduce digital carbon footprints?

Updated Thursday, 15 September 2022

Corporations have a significant role to play in reducing the digital carbon footprint. This article examines the challenges faced and how much can be done to overcome them.

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As seen in other articles in this series (see below), our digital lifestyles are not carbon-free, and the digital technology products and services we both buy and sell all contribute to our collective carbon emissions. 

The Jisc Exploring Digital Carbon Footprints paper states that the current best estimates put the internet’s carbon footprint at approximately 1.7bn tonnes in 2020. If the internet were a nation, this would put it in fourth place behind China, the USA and India in terms of global emissions. 

However, an exact number for the total carbon emissions generated from our digital lifestyles is a topic of debate and ongoing research. 

One trend that isn’t debated is the rate of growth in digital technologies. This has been growing exponentially since the commercialisation of the transistor, and continues to, despite global events. 

Digital technologies are responsible for carbon emissions from their creation, through to their use and disposal, and their sustained exponential growth will continue to result in the growth in carbon emissions.  

On the bright side, as more of the technology supply and operations infrastructure transitions away from fossil fuel-based energy, the rate of growth might indeed slow from exponential to simple linear models. 

Organisations might be tempted to consider digital carbon footprints inconsequential when compared to other parts of their business but given the points above and the continual digital transformation of entire industries, this would be a miscalculation. 

The opportunity presented by understanding and acting on our corporate digital footprints is two-fold:  

  1. On the one hand, reductions in digital carbon footprints can have a near term material impact and have other positive consequences across a workforce, such as overcoming climate hesitation and helping address eco-anxiety. For more on this, see the article in this series on remote working. 
  2. On the other hand, organisations that act to curb digital emissions now, set themselves on a better trajectory to achieving and maintaining NetZero strategies as digital continues to become more pervasive. 

What can corporates do to tackle digital carbon footprints? 

The path towards managing and reducing digital carbon footprints is one that requires changes in policy, procedure and behaviour. 

This path begins with two fundamental activities that underpin and facilitate the other tips I will share later. 

  1. First, we must seek to gain an ever-improving snapshot of the organisation’s carbon status quo, or ‘carbon baseline’.  
  2. Second, we must raise awareness that although digital has many significant benefits, it does carry with it a carbon cost. 

Developing the baseline 

When it comes to determining an organisation’s footprint, digital included, one of the biggest challenges revolves around data and information – the data simply isn’t robust or abundant enough, yet. That means that any status quo baseline we can create can only be as good as the currently available information.  

These data are improving rapidly, which means that the shelf life of the baseline will naturally be short and will require continual updates. 

When developing a baseline, companies should be mindful to incorporate data across all parts of their business; upstream (the lifetime of their products and services once supplied), downstream (suppliers, and supply chains) and operational. 

Tackle the notion of ‘digital is carbon-free’ and raise awareness that changes in both purchasing, use and disposal can have in incrementally impactful outcome for individuals, the business and the environment. 

Once developed, the baseline should be used across the business to set reducing carbon budgets, which cascade through organisational layers and are used in similar ways to financial budgets – facilitating decision making, accountability and incentivisation. 

Raising awareness, digital carbon literacy 

Since digital technologies offer all sorts of benefits compared to alternatives, including cost and carbon avoidance – such as reduction in travel, printing, waste and faster more efficient transactions – there is a tendency to think that digital is the carbon-free choice. 

Unfortunately, while it may offer a lower carbon option, digital simply isn’t carbon-free. 

This is the first place to start. Tackle the notion of ‘digital is carbon-free’ and raise awareness that changes in both purchasing, use and disposal can have in incrementally impactful outcome for individuals, the business and the environment. 

This can be approached from different perspectives: 

Governance: Integrate baselines, ‘carbon incrementals’ (see Responsible Procurement article below) and carbon budgets into management decision making and incentivisation. 

Gamification: Set carbon reduction challenges between teams and departments which encourage understanding of technology and energy utilisation. 

Communicate: Include digital carbon measurements and targets as part of the broader sustainability communications, as well as individual reward and recognition for reduction achievements. 

Ideas for reducing an organisation’s digital carbon footprint 

When it comes to reducing digital carbon footprints across an organisation, there are a range of activities that can be undertaken.  

On one end of the spectrum there are capital-intensive projects that can take significant effort to deploy yet yield immediate impact across a wide scale – such as developing, or switching to renewable energy sources across entire estates, or incorporating increasing, greater proportions of remanufactured procurement in equipment refresh and purchase cycles. 

There are also, smaller, more easily achievable changes that can be made at an individual level. These changes deliver carbon reductions that are comparatively much smaller in their own right than an estate-wide big-budget project, but when multiplied across a workforce, they can lead to significant savings.  

Here are a few ideas of initiatives that corporates can undertake to begin to measure and reduce their company-wide digital carbon footprints.  

Small Energy

‘Small energy’ is the energy required to power smaller electrical equipment such as phone chargers, printers, computers, monitors and other office equipment. 

Research shows that more than 20% of an office building’s energy consumption can be attributed to these devices. Details in the report indicate that leaving just 10 desktop computers in stand-by mode out-of-hours could generate 145 kWhs of electricity to simply do nothing.  

Using to get the real-time carbon intensity of the UK’s National Grid (250gCo2e/kWh), 145 kWhs converts to 36 kg or carbon.  

That’s just 10 computers: try scaling that to a few hundred or thousand. Then add in the cost of less-efficient appliances such as printers and vending machines. It begins to add up very quickly. 

There are systems that can be installed across buildings and campuses to keep track of these ‘energy vampire’ devices and automate their switching off and on. One such example is from a company called Measureable Energy, which appeared on the BBC to talk about the problem, and how their solution also indicates how ‘green’ the energy is that is currently coming out of the socket. 

These systems require investment and planning, but can automatically have a scale across entire buildings. 

Campus WiFi 

While future versions of 5G will deliver significant energy optimisation benefits, WiFi is currently often more efficient than cellular communications. Organisations should look to optimise the WiFi networks for energy efficiency and make them both ubiquitous across their buildings and grounds, but also easily accessible for visitors. 

This requires careful planning and IT policy development to ensure WiFi networks remove login barriers to become the default carrier for the thousands of potential users across their sites.  

In many countries the cost of mobile data has reached a price-point that it’s often not worth the bother of trying to login to a WiFi network if it’s just data that will be saved. Organisations therefore need to find the right incentives to ensure users actually connect.  

That could be through one-time logins and other ease-of-access approaches, or through other benefits such as ease of access to corporate systems or workplace benefits. 

IT equipment defaults

IT departments should look to implement new policies that ensure all equipment is set to operate in the most energy efficient modes as possible.  

As an example, new monitors should have their brightness levels turned down from typically high >90% factory defaults to usable, but energy saving levels around 50-60%.  

Mobile devices with OLED displays should have dark-mode enabled by default, as this can save up to 30% of the battery life, and therefore increase the time between recharges. 

Laptops should be provisioned to utilise energy saving modes and to encourage powering-off when not in use. 

On-premises data centres

Server room

There are many sizeable investments that can be made to optimise energy usage, and therefore carbon emissions of on-premises data centres. There are also a number of small, more easily accessible best practices that can have significant impacts. 

Corporations can seek support from organisations such as CEEDA and DEEP to become more sustainable. However, there are some quick win best practices that data centre managers can investigate that relate to air flow.  

Improving air flow can increase cooling efficiency and therefore reduce the amount of energy and emissions associated with non-computation overheads of the centre. 

  • Inspect underfloor spaces, removing obstructions such as cables, trays and ducting. 
  • Monitor the static pressure under the floor, and investigate the cause of variations.  
  • Ensure cool air is not escaping from the seams between the walls, servers and the raised floors or cable trunkings. Horsehair brushes are an easy way to prevent leaks.  
  • Match both the ceiling and floor tile flow rates with the demands of the cabinets they serve.  

Cloud utilisation 

Cloud has been a game changer, but as mentioned in the Reducing the digital carbon footprint of the cloud article (see below for the rest of the series) can suffer from ‘out of sight, out of mind’ syndrome. 

When it comes to reducing carbon footprints of cloud technologies, there are three things to consider: data, transmission and processing. 


Jisc’s Sow a Seed video states that only 6% of data is regularly used. That means 94% of your data storage is potentially not necessary or can be moved to offline storage mechanisms. 

Data storage is often thought of as a static function, without overhead. However, storing data in the cloud has an energy and emission cost, along with an impact on hardware demand and therefore embodied carbon. 

The Stanford Magazine suggests that storing 100 gigabytes of data in the cloud could be responsible for approximately 0.18 to 0.2 tonnes of CO2e per year. Across a corporation, there are many ways chunks of 100GB could easily add up, such as unwanted laptop or mobile backups, duplicated files, remote desktop snapshots for ex-employees, out of date archives and shared files. 

Storing data in the cloud unnecessarily has a transmission cost too.  


Calculating, the environmental cost of a byte of data in transit is a highly variable and complex equation that must consider a significant number of externalities and temporal variations. However, a global team of data scientists collaborated to create a simplified model that estimates the transmission of 1GB of data to be equal to 419g of CO2e. (based on the current carbon intensity of the UK’s National Grid, as cited above). 

If only 6% of every 100GB stored in the cloud is used, that would equate to almost 40 kgs of needlessly generated CO2e. 


This is probably the easiest to understand activity of cloud computing – energy is expended when cloud apps are used. That energy will increasingly be provided by renewable sources, but not exclusively for quite a while. Beyond the energy, the more the cloud providers have to scale to provide capacity for unnecessary computing, the more hardware they need, and therefore the more hardware they need to purchase. 

Tips for reducing cloud emissions 

  • Learn about how to monitor and track cloud provider carbon emissions. Either using the provider’s own dashboards, or others such as the open source project Cloud Carbon Footprint or other third party options like GreenPixie.
  • Regularly review and enact the data deletion steps of data retention policies. 
  • Look for opportunities to store data locally or using edge compute storage solutions. 
  • Spin-down cloud services during inactive periods, such as HR systems during office closures.  

Further tips and ideas 

If you’re looking for more ideas on how corporations can reduce their digital carbon footprint, do take a look at the previous articles in this series that also include relevant suggestions. 

More on digital carbon footprints


This resource is part of the Supporting hybrid working and digital transformation collection, made possible by the Higher Educational Funding Council for Wales.

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