Green software development: Microsoft, Linux Foundation want to make coding carbon-free

Can the 'green software' concept take and help the ICT sector reduce its carbon footprint?

Microsoft is backing a new non-profit, The Green Software Foundation, as part of an industry-wide effort to clean up code so that it's not wasting electricity on laptops, desktops or in the cloud. 

Cloud giants including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook are trying to reduce the carbon footprint of their cloud data centers. While it's easy to envisage how massive data centers consume electricity, it's less clear how code behind an application or even certain programming languages impact the carbon footprint of the hardware it's running on. 

To help realize the possibility of carbon-free applications, Microsoft, the consultancies Accenture and ThoughtWorks, the Linux Foundation, and Microsoft-owned code-sharing site, GitHub, have launched The Green Software Foundation

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Announced at Microsoft's Build 2021 developer conference, the foundation is trying to promote the idea of green software engineering – a new field that looks to make code more efficient and reduce carbon emitted from the hardware it's running on. 

A case in point is Python, a hugely popular programming language for machine learning and AI. It's one example of how code can impact the environment at a time when the world looks incapable of meeting carbon reductions outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement – which US President Joe Biden has signed the US up to again.

As Python's creator, Guido van Rossum, now a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, noted recently, the language demands high-powered CPUs and GPUs to run Python code for processing scientific data. It's not designed to run on mobile devices because it sucks up too much battery life and memory. 

The foundation wants to set standards, best practices and patterns for building green software; nurture the creation of trusted open-source and open-data projects and support academic research; and grow an international community of green software ambassadors.

The goal is to help the ICT sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% before 2030. That includes mobile network operators, ISPs, data centers, and all the laptops being snapped up during the pandemic. 

"We envision a future where carbon-free software is standard – where software development, deployment, and use contribute to the global climate solution without every developer having to be an expert," Erica Brescia, COO of GitHub said in a statement. 

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Microsoft president Brad Smith said "the world confronts an urgent carbon problem."

"It will take all of us working together to create innovative solutions to drastically reduce emissions. Microsoft is joining with organizations who are serious about an environmentally sustainable future to drive adoption of green software development to help our customers and partners around the world reduce their carbon footprint." 

So far, Goldman Sachs and non-profits including Leaders for Climate Action, Watt Time and The Green Web Foundation have joined The Green Software Foundation.