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The Environmental Impact of the Tech Industry


As software engineers and product designers creating custom digital projects, it’s easy to forget about all of the resources that go into making your job possible. Think of the “Cloud” — out of sight, out of mind. But the resources and energy used to build your computer, power it, and power the data center holding your information in the Cloud all contribute to carbon emissions. Working in technology, we are called on to be future-facing every day, and it’s our responsibility to be aware of how our work impacts the environment.

Because software is intangible, it can be difficult to grasp how it affects the environment. The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector is rapidly growing, accounting for more than 2% of global emissions — roughly the same as the aviation industry’s carbon footprint from fuel emissions. The environmental impact has become too big to ignore, and the increasing number of devices, expansion of data centers, and ambiguity of carbon offsets all contribute to the problem. It’s not all bad news, though: with thoughtful research and planning, there are solutions we can work toward to initiate change.

Our Industry’s Impact on Carbon Emissions

An Increasing Number of Devices Means An Increased Need for Energy

Right now, the ICT sector makes up over 2% of global emissions, but if trends continue, by 2040 it will constitute 15% of global emissions: equivalent to half of the entire world’s transportation sector emissions. One reason for that is the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) — or the system of internet-connected, “smart” physical objects collecting and exchanging data via a wireless network. Juniper Research reported that the number of IoT connections will rise from 35 billion in 2020 to 83 billion in 2024, which is 130% growth in just four years. And by 2023, 66% of the global population will have internet access (compared to 51% in 2018).

As more and more people get connected, the question is whether or not there will be enough electricity to power all these devices. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are the main sources of electricity in the US, both of which are finite resources. Moreover, the data centers that house these vast amounts of information require lots of electricity, and with more devices in the world, there will have to be more data centers.

The Expansion of Data Centers

The rise in the number of devices and cloud-based services has led to an expansion of data centers, which consume 2% of the world’s electricity. By 2030, that number could be 8%.

“Data Center Alley” is a little-known tech hub that processes 70% of global internet traffic. Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft own or rent data centers in Data Center Alley. Amazon dominates the world of cloud-computing real estate, owning enough data centers in the area that nearly a third of the internet runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Because of this, many tech companies and their stakeholders want their cloud-computing services to be hosted close by for the quickest service and updates.

However, what tech companies don’t realize is that while AWS may try to dedicate resources to powering their operations with renewable energy, the source of electricity for data centers is completely dependent on the local region. In this case, Data Center Alley is reliant on Loudoun County, Virginia’s resources: a utility provider called Dominion Energy that happens to run on mostly fossil fuels. This leads to the conundrum that faces many tech companies, who are put in a position of having to choose between being on the bleeding edge and being sustainable.

As of 2020, AWS has established 5 carbon-neutral zones where they purchase carbon offsets to balance the emissions coming from those zones. However, this solution is more complex than meets the eye.

The Ambiguity of Carbon Offsets

To combat the negative effects of their carbon emissions — and, perhaps, the negative public perception of those emissions — it has become increasingly popular for companies like Amazon to purchase carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (like carbon dioxide) used to compensate for emissions made somewhere else. When someone buys a carbon offset, the money goes toward a project that removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or prevents new emissions. The most common carbon offset projects are forest management or renewable electricity generation initiatives. Individuals and organizations can buy carbon offsets to balance the scale for emissions they can’t reduce themselves.

There are two offset categories: mandatory and voluntary. Mandatory offsets, also known as compliance offsets, are purchased because of a legally binding limit to the amount of greenhouse gases that an organization can release. On the other hand, individuals and organizations purchase voluntary offsets at their discretion. As of 2019, the mandatory offset market was $44 billion, while the voluntary offset market was around $300 million.

When it comes to purchasing carbon offsets, there are many concerns. First, there is no globally recognized price for carbon offsets, so the price of buying a carbon offset is often much lower than the actual cost of climate damage caused by emissions. Furthermore, there is no federal regulation of voluntary offsets, so individuals must do their own research to ensure the offset company delivers what they promise. For instance, the Vatican was once presented with offset certificates to make their governing body carbon-neutral — but the millions of trees promised were never actually planted.

Criticisms of carbon offsets include the opinion that purchasing carbon offsets is another way for wealthy companies to throw money at the problem instead of changing their processes. Companies will often buy offsets wherever they are cheapest, which is in developing countries — putting the responsibility of creating change on the shoulders of people living near the offset project site.

Another concern with carbon offsets is when the calculations should stop. The relationships are so complex and opaque that it quickly becomes impossible to come up with a straightforward number. As a developer, when you create a button, think about all of the infrastructures behind creating that one button. How do you calculate its carbon footprint? Does the production of your computer’s parts count towards the carbon footprint of your button? Should the fossil fuels burned to power your laptop fold into your calculations when deciding how many carbon offsets to purchase? Not to mention the energy used by data centers to store your code.

Many factors contribute to a carbon footprint, so the more transparent corporations become about their carbon emissions, the easier it will be for companies and individuals to understand the impact of their choices. It may even incentivize developing greener practices, as people will invent more creative ways not to emit greenhouse gases.

What Can We Do About It?

Responsibly Purchase Carbon Offsets

Purchasing carbon offsets is better than not doing anything at all — however, it’s important to do your research. When seeking a company to buy offsets from, look for a portfolio of permanent and enforceable projects and certifications, and it’s even better if a third party has accredited the projects. Ensuring the projects benefit the communities where they are located, rather than placing additional stress on them, is imperative. Above all, transparency is key.

When purchasing carbon offsets, purchase more than necessary, if possible. For example, if your team has to fly to another city for a conference, buying two or three carbon offsets for each person (rather than just one) will make your carbon footprint fall rather than only stop it from going up. With some initial groundwork, you can find a carbon offset company and project that aligns with your business values.

Start a Conversation

A great way to start a conversation about the environmental impact of your work is to make thoughtful decisions about where your company’s data is stored. The first step to creating change is learning whether company data is stored in a carbon-neutral zone or a zone contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The Green Web Foundation is a resource that shows what websites (including your own) are hosted by a certified green company. Migrating your company’s data to a carbon-neutral region is a big lift, but it doesn’t take too much effort to start a conversation about it and explore what a migration would require.

If you work for a larger company with an enterprise account linked to a data center running on fossil fuels, ask the data center’s account manager for more renewable options. Another excellent way to take action is by signing petitions (and creating them!). Ultimately, educating yourself and getting the conversation started will help shed light on the environmental impact of the tech industry.

The environmental impact of the tech industry is something that developers and designers must acknowledge comes with our job. But when we educate ourselves and create shared accountability, we can create real, lasting change and advocate for a greener future for the tech industry.

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