A long-term battle: The tech industry's role in combatting climate change

At a time when it has become a crucial part of staying in business.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Image: Intel

As the world continues to make attempts at urgently containing the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even more dire issue that needs to be addressed: Climate change.

New research, published in last month's edition of the journal Communications Earth and Environment, found that in 2019, Greenland's ice sheet lost an annual record of 532 billion tonnes of ice. For perspective, between 2003 and 2016, Greenland's ice sheet lost on average about 255 billion tonnes of ice each year.

Further evidence of climate change worsening was seen last week when a large chunk of Greenland's ice cap, estimated to be 110 square kilometres in size, broke off in the far north-east Arctic, the Associated Press reported.

But climate change is no longer a conversation only had among environmental activists. Technology companies and their leaders are getting involved too, with many joining the fight.

This year alone there have been some significant and ambitious plans put forward. Microsoft, for instance, plans to be carbon negative by 2030. The company also has plans to remove all of the carbon it has emitted -- directly and by electrical consumption -- since it was founded in 1975, by the year 2050. Similarly, Google has committed to only using carbon-free energy by 2030.

See also: These 10 technologies are most likely to help save planet Earth  

Meanwhile, Apple has vowed to be carbon neutral by 2030 and Rio Tinto has committed $1 billion to achieve its goal of getting down to net zero emissions by 2050.

Earlier this year, the richest person on earth, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, also pledged $10 billion to help save the world from global warming. Amazon then separately set up a $2 billion fund dedicated towards investing in technologies that would help companies reduce their carbon footprint.

IDC associate research director Glen Duncan explained that sustainability is now top of mind for many IT executives because they realise their role in the "betterment of society beyond profit".

"We're now going through a digital revolution if you like, and so many organisations are digitally transforming. They're using technologies like cloud and the internet to evolve their businesses, and it's bringing about a lot of change. That change is creating problems and issues in terms of the environment and sustainability," he said.

The detrimental impact technology is having on the environment was recently highlighted by the United Nations (UN), which released a report revealing that global e-waste production soared beyond 53 million tonnes last year.

Read more: The Internet of Wild Things: Technology and the battle against biodiversity loss and climate change

Based on the latest numbers, the UN predicts global e-waste will reach 74 million tonnes by 2030, explaining that this will be fuelled by higher electric and electronic consumption rates, shorter lifecycles, and limited repair options.

"This sharp rise creates substantial environmental and health pressures, and demonstrates the urgency to combine the fourth industrial revolution with circular economy. The fourth industrial revolution either will advance a new circular economy approach for our economies or it will stimulate further resource depletion and new pollution waves," International Solid Waste Association president Antonis Mavropoulos said. 

Numbers aside, the pressure for tech companies to prioritise sustainability, much like any other business function, has come from the supply chain, according to Equinix Asia Pacific sales senior VP Diarmid Massey.

"Customers and partners want to purchase stuff from organisations … but only if you can demonstrate that these are sustainable and helping them 'green' their own supply chains," he said, speaking during a recent panel event.

"As part of the process, more and more of our customers are coming to us and saying 'We need proof from you that says you're doing your best to mitigate environmental impact. [Have] you got metrics and certifications that prove it?'

"This then enables them to meet their own sustainability objectives … if you don't commit to them, you don't really have an opportunity to supply to this particular partner, so it's an important part of being in business today, as well as just being the right thing to do."

The growing level of recognition around climate change by top-level executives has been witnessed first-hand by Yulanda Chung, DBS head of sustainability.

"Nowadays when I have client meetings, I'm not just meeting with sustainability functions and personnel, I'm meeting with the CFO and the treasurer of my customers. That's because they're now seeing the connection between the cost of funding and the company's ESG (environmental, social governance, and performance)," she said.

Read: Linux Foundation commits to addressing climate change with data and analytics (TechRepublic)  

Findings of IDC's 2020 Datacenter Operational Survey revealed 74% of enterprises across APAC include data centre facility metrics in their corporate social responsibility (CSR). Of those, more than half said they detailed how they reduce energy use, while another 46% said they were investing in renewable energy sources.

At the same time, the study revealed 11% of those surveyed APAC enterprises said their number one selection factor was based on how collocation service providers invested in renewable energy sources and their green initiatives.

"You'd say 'Well 11% is quite low' … [but] it's showing that at least for the thought leaders in the industry, they're starting to consider that to be a key aspect," Duncan said.

When compared to US organisations, IDC's data showed 89% of respondents reported data centre metrics within their CSR reporting initiatives.  

"There are no significant differences but there are slight, slight differences in terms of the importance and it's interesting to see that American corporations are slightly ahead of Asia in terms of really incorporating that sustainability reporting in the metrics," Duncan said.

According to Massey, there are several ways enterprises can change to be carbon negative. Looking at Equinix's own operations, he pointed to how the company has been "constantly looking for cleaner sources of energy", highlighting that its Amsterdam data centres now rely on aquifer thermal energy storage, which uses cold groundwater to both keep equipment cool and reduce overall energy consumption.

SAP product engineering executive board member Thomas Sauressig recently stressed the urgency for change, following the company's launch of its Climate21 program and product carbon footprint analytics, which was designed to help enterprises track their carbon footprint.

He said despite there being a current focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, enterprises needed to think long term.

"With the global pandemic that we all face, the short term for every business is to see how we can overcome this pandemic. But I think everyone has recognised this pandemic will be over and then we need to be prepared [for] what is the next step. How do you set yourself up for success after this pandemic?" Sauressig recently told ZDNet.

"What we also clearly realise very strongly in regions around the world is that for sure we'll open up more and more countries again because we're seeing improvements of the pandemic.

"We see more push for business leaders to think about what's actually next ... this is where sustainability is still one of the top agenda items for every CEO. I think with the opening of the economy, that's what people want to do as the next step."

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