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Digital carbon footprints
Our modern-day digital dependency carries with it many unique characteristics.
Besides the benefits that digital technologies can provide, such as efficiencies, scale and advanced capabilities, there are other social and environmental aspects that are often less obvious. One such characteristic is what is known as the digital carbon footprint. The term encapsulates the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions attributable to the digital products and services we purchase, use, and dispose of.
The intangibility of the digital services we rely on has lured us into a false sense that the environmental impact, when compared with the more physical alternatives, is inconsequential.
However, it is not that clear-cut, nor as little as you might expect. Simply put, digital is not carbon-free.
Everything from asset tracking tags to Wi-Fi access points, laptops, mobile phones, computer servers, webpages and video conference calls have their own carbon footprints.
Approximately 80% of the lifetime carbon footprint of a digital device can be attributed to activities that happen before the device is even used. That comprises of the carbon, and the equivalent, that is spent in the creation of the individual technology components such as semiconductors, storage, plastic casings, screens, connections and cables, and the carbon emitted during storage and transportation.
Therefore, the most impact we can have on reducing digital’s carbon emissions can be achieved through buying more wisely, extending the usable lifetimes of the things we buy, and ultimately buying less.
This is often easier said than done. However, the awareness, tools and data required to achieve this are becoming more accurate and more accessible than ever before.
End of life
Before we even think about purchasing, there is another aspect we must consider – what do we do with our technologies once we have finished using them?
Discarded electronics products, known as eWaste, present their own environmental challenges.
A great deal of natural resources are required in the manufacture of electronic technology products, including water, gold, silver, copper, cobalt, lithium and many rare earth elements. These materials are either expended during manufacture or baked into the digital products – making their recovery complicated yet vital.
A UN report suggests 7% of the global gold supply is locked up in eWaste, and there is more gold per tonne in eWaste than there is in gold ore. Further, a 2021 report estimates the value of unrecovered rare earth elements is more than £13 million, for the UK alone.
Improper after-life handlingThe ITU’s 2020 Global E-waste Monitor report disclosed that less than 18% of all eWaste can be accounted for, meaning that almost 83% of eWaste is likely not properly recycled, recovered or disposed of. The Basel Action Network report highlighted that much of this ends up being shipped to villages across Africa and China, which lack facilities to safely manage the waste.
Beyond CO2e emissions, eWaste contains materials that can, when disposed of without proper care, cause significant long-term harm to humans, the environment and biodiversity.
From a human health perspective, these noxious emissions cause birth and growth defects including lung, cardiovascular, and even DNA damage.
It is crucial that our purchasing decisions include strategies and commitments that ensure technology is dealt with carefully and deliberately at the end of its usable life.
The ‘Circular IT’ philosophy looks to address these procurement challenges. Two of the leading practices in this area are refurbishing and remanufacturing. Both seek to increase the usable lifetime of technology, reduce the demand for new items and reduce waste, and therefore minimise the lifetime carbon impact of our digital products.
Responsible procurement practices
No matter what size an organisation might be, procurement will likely be directed by a set of key performance metrics, which are often focused on balancing performance, features, and capability with capital and operational costs.
The move to digital carbon footprint-aware purchasing requires new metrics and scoring guidelines. These should focus on the carbon impact of the purchasing decision, both in terms of the upfront, or embodied carbon, and the operational and the disposal emissions.
For this we need new metrics: Carbon baselines and carbon ‘incrementals’.
These metrics need to address the acquisition and disposal as well as the operational carbon footprints.
A baseline is the measurement of the carbon status quo. This could be across the whole organisation, across teams, divisions, business lines or even simply product categories, such as laptops.
The availability and trustworthiness of carbon footprint data is sparse, yet advancing at pace, and as such, any baseline should be considered a best effort estimate at a given time.
Organisations should look to improve and evolve baselines on a continuous basis, and the procurement function can have a significant role in this.
With baselines set, purchasing decisions should include a carbon criteria – does this purchase improve or worsen our digital carbon footprint?
Posing this as a mandatory, or highly preferred, question to be answered by suppliers will, in turn, encourage them to be more forthcoming with the carbon data, but also furnish the business with a more detailed, incremental picture of their evolving baseline.
Extending responsible purchasing beyond procurement
In larger businesses, purchasing authority and autonomy is cascaded down through the organisation leaving the procurement teams to focus on the more strategic, high value or more complex purchasing requirements.
Traditionally, the prime decision factors of cost vs performance have been the supporting pillars of this distributed decision making.
To successfully implement carbon awareness across organisational layers, the trilateral task of balancing cost vs performance vs carbon footprint using baselines and carbon incrementals also needs to be cascaded.
However, in many sectors, the quality of purchasing and carbon data deteriorates as you look beneath supplier aggregates.
Carbon footprint data is often hard to come by at a product or service level, and where it does exist it can be rudimentary or incomplete. This is to be expected, because a vast majority of suppliers are also trying to establish their own product data and baselines, similarly it should also be expected that suppliers rapidly improve their carbon data, too.
In practice, this means that approximations are often used to allocate nominal carbon values to products based on the level of spend with specific suppliers, in certain countries. This is known as supplier carbon intensity data.
Procurement teams should be looking for technology or process solutions to help provide more granular, product-level carbon footprint data as a way to provide even more carbon-aware decision autonomy across their organisations. This level of data will be crucial in inspiring and motivating the level of change needed.
Inspire behaviour change
The challenge of dealing with the climate emergency is immense. It requires systematic, complete, radical and rapid change to nearly every aspect of our lives.
Because of this, eco-anxiety is becoming rife and accelerating at pace. People are feeling hopeless, lost and disempowered.
There is, however, a tremendous role that procurement can play, both in reducing the carbon footprints of our digital lifestyles and also in helping individuals to feel somewhat more in control and able to make a difference.
This comes down to behavioural change and power of the confluence of these two quotes:
If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.
Dalai Lama What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and fed back gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated.
John E. Jones III
Human beings generally have a resistance to change, let alone behavioural change. Yet, behavioural change at scale is critical to address our collective climate goals.
One point of unlikely inspiration can be taken from the COVID-19 pandemic. With the right motivation, measurement and ‘reward’, entire societies can change their behaviours almost overnight.
Led by responsible procurement practices, individual purchasing and usage behaviour can be motivated, tracked, and rewarded, leading to repeated and sustained improvements.
At an individual level, these carbon improvements might be minor, but they can help break the sense of helplessness, providing tangible and regular recognition that go on to encourage further changes and improvement.
As discovered in Jisc’s Exploring Digital Carbon Footprints report, staff are more likely to change their behaviours when motivated by sustainability drivers compared with traditional cost-cutting campaigns.
Procurement teams have a tremendous opportunity to deliver significant reductions in digital carbon footprints both by addressing upfront carbon emissions at the point of purchase, and minimising eWaste through using assets longer, embracing refurbished or remanufactured items and responsible recycling.
Further, through an iterative focus on digital carbon footprint baseline improvement, along with product-level carbon decision-making data, responsible purchasing decisions can empower individuals to take, and own, their own positive carbon actions.
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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