Digital does not automatically mean "green" - why should we think about reducing CO2 footprint in the IT field?

  • 2024-02-09
  • Viesturs Bulāns, CEO and Partner of Helmes Latvia

When thinking about sustainability, we most often understand rational electricity consumption, reducing and sorting waste, or environmentally friendly mobility. Living in an era where more and more services are provided and received remotely and data volumes are growing rapidly, it must be remembered that digital does not automatically mean environmentally friendly or sustainable. The IT industry also generates a CO2 footprint, and moreover a relatively large one. For example, data from the International Energy Agency shows that the IT industry generates approximately 5% of the world's CO2 emissions annually - more than aviation. The discussion on how to make aviation more sustainable has been actively ongoing for several years, and leading companies in the industry have set very ambitious goals for reducing emissions. Therefore, it is time for the IT industry to seek solutions, such as green coding and sustainable software.

Volumes of e-commerce and the increasing number of smart devices

Although it may seem that by digitizing certain services or information volumes, such as databases, we automatically act more environmentally friendly, it is not always so straightforward. Various elements of the IT industry also generate a CO2 footprint, for example, IT services account for approximately 15% of the industry's total emissions, data centres - 19%, software - 18%, networks - 15%, while end-user devices account for approximately 30%. The demand for various IT services is rapidly increasing, significantly influenced by the pandemic, which has boosted e-commerce volumes. Statistics show that Europe is becoming a significant player in the e-commerce world, and it is forecasted that by 2027, the e-commerce market in the region will reach approximately $750 billion in value. The number of various smart devices is also increasing significantly; many of us use multiple smart devices daily, actively using social media (most users use multiple platforms), uploading data in various formats (images, videos, etc.). For example, every minute, more than 500 hours of content are uploaded to the YouTube platform.

IT will consume 13% of the world's electricity

It is also worth mentioning the growth of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) - in 2022, there were approximately 2.7 billion IoT connections in Europe alone, including wearable devices, smart home appliances, security systems, thermostats, smart transportation, and more. The development of artificial intelligence also has an impact - as it learns and processes data, artificial intelligence essentially generates even more data. According to statistics, 90% of the world's data has been created in the last two years alone. And every two years, the volume of data worldwide doubles. In 2020, there were 64 zettabytes of data worldwide, not including physical data. It is forecasted that by 2025, the global data volume will increase to over 180 zettabytes. This also increases the consumption of electricity. Estimates indicate that by 2030, the IT industry will consume approximately 13% of the world's total electricity.

The Importance of Modular Systems

The volume of data and the increasing electricity consumption necessitate the need for green coding and sustainable software, including the creation of modular systems, which allow adding or removing functions as needed. By not creating systems with unnecessary functions, using only those functions that are truly necessary, auditing data, and not accumulating unnecessary data, among other measures, we can reduce the CO2 footprint generated by IT. By creating adaptable systems, we actually extend the system's lifespan - just as when making decisions about purchasing electrical goods, we increasingly consider whether a particular item will serve us in the long term to avoid disposing of it after a short period of use, generating more waste. The same principle should be applied when developing/ordering IT systems.

We keep storing unnecessary data more and more

Of course, the professionalism of programmers and the ability to create concise algorithms, known as clean coding, also play a significant role in the development of green coding. When developing various applications, it is also possible to create user interfaces that automatically reduce energy consumption. It is also important to assess how frequent data synchronization between the device and the data centre is really necessary. Perhaps continuous synchronization is not needed in all cases. Speaking of the amount of stored data, it should be noted that although the General Data Protection Regulation has brought some improvements regarding personal data, a large amount of unnecessary data is still being stored overall.

Long-Term Benefits for the Environment and Companies

To reduce the impact of the IT industry on the environment and promote sustainability, the key is undoubtedly thoughtful functionality. Green coding and sustainable software are, in fact, a way of thinking or an approach, and many IT industry professionals, including the team at "Helmes Latvia," are already applying it. It is important to realize that, similar to other sustainability elements such as waste sorting, the effects or benefits are most pronounced in the long term. For companies, this means not only reducing electricity costs but also greater alignment with environmental, social, and governance criteria used to assess the sustainability and social impact of the company. These criteria increasingly affect the image and reputation of every company, whether thinking about new customers, attracting and retaining talent. Considering the goals of the EU Green Deal, which aim to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050, it is clear that there will be increasingly stringent regulatory standards in the field of sustainability. Green coding and sustainable software will be key to ensuring compliance with regulatory standards as well.

It is important to understand that green coding or sustainable software are not entirely new phenomena in themselves, although there has been relatively little discussion about them so far. Similar approaches are already used in other fields and industries, so it remains to "transfer" them to the IT industry. Many industry professionals are already doing this, but for it to become a common and widespread practice, it is also necessary to discuss and share experiences about it.