Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Jun 04 2021
The Hidden Carbon Costs of Technology

Credit: Taylor Vick

Making the choice to not send a ‘thank you’ email isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when one considers how to reduce their carbon footprint. But as much of the world has shifted from paper to digital means of communication both as a matter of convenience and for the good of the environment, it turns out there may be hidden carbon costs lurking in that last email you sent.

“It’s not hidden, it’s just not talked about enough,” asserts Lorena Moreira Saenz, Palladium Director of ICT. “But what people don’t realise is when someone sends a farewell email to 200 people, and someone hits ‘reply all’, you’re creating traffic. The more you increase your traffic, the more bandwidth you need, storage needs to be increased, computers need bigger disks, and so on. It all adds up.”

It turns out that ‘reply all’ faux pas isn’t just bad etiquette, it’s also increasing carbon footprints. Calculated as the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels, carbon footprints allow for a simplified measurement of the amount of carbon that needs to be neutralised to address climate change.

Most commonly equated with the carbon costs of producing consumer goods, or passenger travel via planes or automobiles, the conversation on carbon footprints has recently shifted towards technology. From the smaller amounts of energy needed to power personal computers, to the massive amounts of energy and power needed to upkeep server farms for large organisations, to the disposal of technology at the end of its lifespan, each adds up to the detriment of the environment.

For example, to store and transmit all of the data powering the internet, data centres consume enough electricity to account for 1 percent of global energy demand, and even before the pandemic struck, forcing people to move their lives online, the internet’s carbon footprint accounted for about 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Imagine if that email to 200 people was a piece of paper. It’s taking up virtual space, but it’s still space that comes at a cost,” adds Moreira Saenz.

These small actions exponentially increase the need for storage space, and the technology needed to do so. In fact, in the UK alone, those unnecessary ‘thank you’ emails represents around 64 million messages per day. In extrapolated technology and storage costs, that's about 16,400 tons of carbon per year, or roughly the equivalent of taking 2,200 diesel cars off the road.

So, what can be done?

Moreira Saenz details the conscious choices Palladium has made in an effort to limit the organisation’s overall carbon footprint, as well as to offset some of the unavoidable carbon emissions that come from running an international organisation in 2021.

While some are simple, like a reminder in an email signature to think twice about a needless reply, to larger systematic changes that affect the way teams may function, they represent a larger shift in bringing environmental consciousness to every aspect of business operations.

The first major change was a consolidation of physical servers to the cloud. Where each office once had a server room that required space, air conditioning, and had a limited lifespan, Palladium has downsized from 120 serves to 35 and shifted to Microsoft Azure’s cloud storage. “We were thoughtful about who we chose for the cloud,” adds Moreira Saenz.
“Microsoft’s infrastructure for client sites uses renewable energy and the shift of all our servers and productivity apps represented a significative reduction on our carbon emissions footprint of almost 85 percent.”

But there are some emissions that are unavoidable, such as those tied to laptops and computers. And while there’s very few ways to get around it, they’re taken into account when Palladium determines the amount of carbon that needs to be offset on an annual basis. “We’re as clean as you can get,” notes Moreira Saenz on the organisation’s physical technology usage. “We participate in Dell’s initiative for responsible disposal of assets, and we’ve extended an additional year to our computers’ lifespan to be more conscious in when we actually dispose of assets.”

One of many of Palladium’s carbon offsetting programs, the organisation annually invests in or works on a project to offset its global carbon emissions from the year. On a mission to go completely ‘carbon neutral’, in 2020, Palladium designed a forest regeneration project to offset carbon in the Peruvian Amazon. As 2021’s project is still under deliberation, it will take into account the work Moreira Saenz’s team has already done in offsetting carbon emissions in the ICT sector.

COVID-19’s Effect on Carbon Emissions

As Moreira Saenz adds, necessity breeds innovation, and shutdowns across the world in response to the pandemic have forced the team to double down on creating effective means of working without access to the office. And in doing so, have actually cut down on Palladium’s carbon footprint.

“In the last year, fuelled by the demands from COVID-19, we have brought important efficiencies and better tools to support remote work in both conferencing and collaboration. With the introduction of solutions such as Microsoft Teams, we have reduced the need to travel to meet in-person and made it possible for everyone to work remotely, as needed,” notes Moreira Saenz.

And while the pandemic may have slowed international travel down, recent reports are showing that the uptake in remote work and video conferencing may in fact be increasingly detrimental for the environment. According to researchers, if remote work continues through the end of 2021, the global carbon footprint could grow by upwards of 34.3 million tons in greenhouse gas emissions. The culprit? High-quality video streaming.

It begs the question, as organisations begin to strategise around returning to the office and offering employees remote work options, is it possible to do it in an environmentally friendly way? There’s no easy answer. And as Moreira Saenz notes, it makes it all the more important for organisations to look closely into their software providers to understand the measures they’re taking to improve efficiency and reduce carbon footprints.

As awareness shifts towards more sustainable business models, reducing carbon footprints will be at the forefront of operational initiatives. From offsetting carbon, to working with greener platforms to sustainably support remote work, and of course, thinking twice about hitting ‘reply all’, lowering an organisation’s carbon emissions will become part of everyone’s job on the road to a net-zero economy.

For more information, contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com