Last reviewed 12 November 2021

During the journey of reducing carbon emissions, your business may face harsh realities where carbon audits reveal much more than direct operational and logistical emissions. With the UK pledging to reach net zero by 2050, putting pressure on businesses to improve their office operation, Max Starr provides quick and easy tips to help reduce your digital carbon footprint.

Where is it hiding?

Whether it be a connected coffee machine, smart fridge-freezer, network linked TVs, sensors and security cameras or even vending machines, the internet is embedded into ever more devices as technology advances and the demands or opportunity of connectivity arise. This interconnectivity between devices was coined as the “Internet of Things (IoT)”. It was predicted in 2017 that by 2020 there would be in the order of 20.4 billion IoT devices connected and, while a major technological trend and field of study, it is also a growing source of CO2.

This is mostly due to the digital transactions between the devices and the internet, but principally the storage of data. The internet accounts for 10% of the global demand for electricity with approximately 4 billion internet users and this is only going to increase. The global carbon footprint of our devices, the internet and supporting systems account for between 2.5% to 3.7% of greenhouse emissions.

Increased internet connectivity between devices means more data, and this data needs storing, which is a major contributor to carbon emission. Storing 100 gigabytes of data on cloud based services per year results in a carbon footprint of about 0.2 tons of CO2, based on the US average electricity emission factor. This figure can easily be scaled up to industrial levels considering some business models are solely based around data storage.

It was reported that in 2016, the total global electricity consumption of data centres was higher than the entirety of the UK energy consumption — 416.2 terawatt hours over the UK’s 300 terawatt hours, accounting for 2% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This figure is set to increase to 3.2% by 2025, and 14% by 2040. The reason why data centres are so environmentally unfriendly is a technical requirement, they must be constantly temperature controlled to cool halls of continuously running equipment with massive energy draws.

The current consensus is that internet users and connected devices are growing at an exponential rate, and energy demands for this growth rate must be met with further innovation and better strategy, rather than only expansion.

How to measure carbon

Conventional means measuring a business’s carbon footprint can be considered a form of carbon accounting. Where similar to maintaining accounts on finance, so too can a business monitor carbon emission, and where implemented successfully, can make significant emission savings.

Carbon footprint is generally calculated with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol in mind, which is widely considered the standard for carbon accounting. A hidden carbon emission poses a unique issue in that it is not typically included in conventional reporting. Indirect emissions from secondary or tertiary source via services used can add significant increases to overall emission footprints and these sources are often crucial to operation and business service delivery.

A fairly obvious solution to cloud storage emissions is to reduce dependence on the services data stores offer. This however is easier said than done, especially in a post pandemic climate, where government guidance may as easily revert to enforcing a working from home policy. Cloud services have enabled countless companies, in many cases, to almost seamlessly migrate to a digital workforce and are likely responsible for a large portion of the nation’s economy recovery.

See our in depth exploration of carbon footprint and calculation guides for further information.

Next steps

The following are suggestions that your business could implement for quick and effective emission savings in the face of your digital carbon footprint.

  • For remote workers, IT equipment could be sent to employees ready installed and set up, but this would increase admin of IT departments involved tenfold. This would be especially true for businesses who employ large numbers of employees or have high technical requirement for output.

  • Robust IT procedures which are strictly implemented have great potential to save on emissions with something as simple as shutting a device down completely at the end of the day and unplugging charges/power supplies to ensure there is no electricity draw. Requesting autoreplies and formalities on email be kept to a minimum, can produce a saving where applied on a large scale (considering each email contributes approximately 0.3 grams of CO2).

  • Downsize devices. Physically smaller devices will use less energy and investing in more efficient equipment will make a CO2 impact smaller.

  • Use a sustainably conscious cloud service. Many major data service providers are now moving data centres energy draw to purely sustainable electricity grids.

  • Reconsider the internal digital messages and marketing you produce and release on work premises. These may only need to be active when clients are visiting on site.