European policymakers are increasing scrutiny of the tech sector’s carbon footprint. French policymakers have launched a fact-finding mission to assess the environmental impact of the digital sector in France, and the recently elected prime minister of Finland Sanna Marin has set up a working group to study the impact of the IT sector on the environment. And the European Green Deal, the European Commission’s ambitious agenda for achieving climate neutrality for the EU by 2050, will likely include measures that will affect the IT industry. This renewed attention on the tech sector is an opportunity to champion digitization efforts that will contribute to building a greener economy, and to revise data policies that may be inadvertently contributing to a larger carbon footprint.
While IT uses energy, it is at the heart of many solutions that reduce energy use and emissions, such as telework, precision agriculture, e-commerce, cloud computing, and the smart grid. Telework reduces energy consumption associated with commuting for work. If more widely adopted, it could decrease carbon emissions by over 3 million tons a year just in the UK. Precision agriculture, an approach to farming that uses data to optimize inputs such as water, fertilizer, and pesticides to maximize crop productivity, can prevent overapplication of chemicals, which are a key source of greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector. E-commerce reduces consumer travel, often resulting in lower carbon emissions than conventional retail. And while cloud computing centers use a significant amount of energy, much of that computing load replaces on-premise facilities that are far less energy efficient. Finally, the smart grid gives energy users access to consumption data and pricing, enabling them to make smarter energy choices, reducing both overall demand and peak demand (which usually involves inefficient and dirty energy production), as well as leveraging distributed energy resources such as residential solar, wind, and hydro power sources and batteries.
Moreover, IT itself continues to get much more energy efficient and industry continues to work on promising methods to reduce energy use in the IT sector, such as designing more energy-efficient hardware and algorithms. For example, some researchers are developing methods that use substantially less energy to train AI systems or validate blockchain transactions.
In addition, many tech companies have ambitious plans to reduce their carbon footprint. Large firms like Microsoft are carbon neutral and aim to be carbon negative by 2030. Various European firms have also long made sustainability a priority and a goal as part of their strategies. For example, German business software giant SAP has reduced its own CO2 emissions, from 9.2 tons per employee in 2009 to 3.3 tons per employee in 2018, and aims to become carbon neutral in its own operations by 2025. German online retailer Zalando has recently committed to a net-zero carbon footprint for direct and indirect emissions.
EU climate policies should therefore focus on increasing digital adoption, avoiding regulations that limit voluntary improvements, and promoting further R&D on energy-efficient IT technologies. For example, EU policymakers should consider how data protection rules that require data to be stored or processed in-country may negatively impact emissions by preventing companies from building data centers in locations where there are more clean energy sources or where cooling costs are lower because of a colder climate. Data localization policies are not “green” and should be abandoned as part of a Green Deal. EU policies should also aim to increase R&D funding to further develop energy-efficient next-generation digital technologies and to expand their uptake by making them more affordable.
If the Green Deal results in energy efficiency rules for the tech sector, these should be proportionate, flexible, and compatible with the targets companies of different types and sizes can achieve. Many tech companies are often at the forefront of commitments to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, signatories to the UK government’s Climate Change Agreement (CCA) for data centers have even exceeded the voluntary emissions targets for 2020, increasing their power usage efficiency by 16.7 percent instead of 15 percent.
By treating the tech sector as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, the Green Deal’s policy proposals are an opportunity to accelerate the use of digital solutions to reduce carbon emissions.
Image credits: Flickr, European Parliament