24 Nov 2021

COP26: Sustainable technology and cloud

Guest Blog: John Godwin, UKCloud as part of techUK's cloud week #CloudFuture

My UKCloud colleagues and I were pleased to support the DEFRA E-Sustainability Alliance in Glasgow last week, a heady combination of exhibitions and seminars which brought many of the technology industry together to discuss and understand the role it has to play in supporting net zero carbon ambitions. These are my personal thoughts on elements of the week. 

Technology alone will not solve the global catastrophe the planet has stored up for the future, but it's clear that it has a significant part to play either by reducing carbon emissions/removing stored carbon, or serving up detailed analyses of activities (think of global mapping of carbon emissions) to inform both policy makers and authorities. 

To solve this challenge, three groups need to co-ordinate their efforts. Governments and policy makers need to understand the steps required to change national and international activities and behaviours, using Science Based Targets and other data to ensure that the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and taking steps to limit warming to 1.5°C. Businesses and industry need to assess and adjust their own activities to ensure that they can support their own net zero carbon ambitions - whether that's 2030, 2040 or 2050 - and to publicly declare their intentions on websites such as Climate Pledge and the UK Business Climate Hub, amongst many others. Finally, we need to ensure that individual citizens understand what needs to happen, and ease the options for them to modify their own activities and behaviours to reduce their personal carbon footprint by seeking out and selecting the most sustainable alternatives. 

Many organisations today are measuring and reducing their carbon emissions, and possibly offsetting and residual carbon footprint by investing in clean technologies in developing countries. To achieve a carbon net zero position, we should be aiming for a position where no carbon emissions are being released into the atmosphere, for example by powering our organisations from 100% renewable energy sources, which means that carbon offsetting activities will no longer be necessary. Whilst it may take some years yet to achieve carbon net zero, carbon offsetting in validated, evidence-based schemes will remain an important activity for the near future. 

Much was spoken at COP26 about the role of technologies in providing low or no-carbon alternatives to conventional ICT estates. During my own presentation I encouraged cloud service consumers to be inquisitive of their cloud service providers. Do they have the capability to accurately equate cloud service consumption into carbon emissions? Do they willingly share that data with their customers? And are they going one step further to help customers offset or reduce those emissions to zero? Earlier this year, the UK Government introduced the requirement for certain organisations to publish their annual carbon reduction plans, as outlined in PPN 06/21. UKCloud, for example, publishes these on its website, providing customers with another reference point for environmental performance. 

Many of the questions which followed my presentation were about the perceived behaviours associated with #lazycloud and #digitaltrash, and the steps we need to take to ensure we are not building up a further environmental challenge for future years. 

#lazycloud ... several delegates I spoke to readily identified with the ease with which vast volumes of data and code can be migrated to cloud environments - with the efficiency, cost-saving and increased security controls making this a sensible option. The organisation climatecare reports that cloud and internet-based services are already producing 3.7% of global carbon emissions: if "Global IT" were considered to be a country, it would be third, and just behind China and the USA for carbon emissions. We need to remain aware that our IT workloads need to be carefully monitored and managed, especially if they are "out of sight, out of mind" in somebody else's cloud services. For example, developers creating multiple duplicate databases, snapshots of virtual machines, retaining numerous previous versions of code and the retention of huge activity log data files may be needed and important, but it is easy to see how, if left unchecked, the associated use of IT assets and their power/cooling needs to support them may be challenging our environmental ambitions. Do they all need to be kept on-line and available for such long time periods? As a side note, don't overlook that we also have data retention and data minimisation requirements of GDPR to manage. Cloud usage should be understood by its consumers and carefully monitored to ensure that it does not become a data graveyard for the future. 

#digitaltrash ... I have been inspired by the efforts of the Digital Clean Up Day organisation, whose informative website provides numerous examples of how seemingly tiny data interactions by individual citizens are adding up to larger global carbon emissions. Whether that's the difference between using a webcam on a conference call or just using audio options, noting that the energy used for mining BitCoins is reported to be more than New Zealand consumes in a whole year, or assessing how many of the 281 billion daily emails are simply "Thanks", "Noted", "Agreed" etc. Let's be clear, excessive email retention, mobile device cloud-based backups, the retention of smartphone apps that you never use ... these are just a very few examples of activities which most of us are guilty of and which combine to challenge our net zero ambitions. 

What is your organisation doing to ensure your colleagues understand the environmental impact of their individual work activities, however small and insignificant they seem? Ultimately good behaviours will reduce costs and carbon emissions, and in many cases will transfer to individuals and how they manage their personal or home IT devices too. 

Quoting former US President Barrack Obama from his COP26 speech on 8th November: 

"This is not just about raw numbers. This is not just about science. This is about politics. It’s about culture. It’s about morality. It’s about the human dynamic. How do we work together to get a big thing done? And it’s about participation and power." 

We understand that the clock is ticking. Technology is already here to help manage climate change and will make a significant contribution to whether we achieve our net zero carbon ambitions or not. Understand it well and use it wisely to ensure we are not creating environmental challenges for our children and future generations. 

Author:

John Godwin, UKCloud

Originally posted here

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Laura Foster

Laura Foster

Programme Manager, Technology and Innovation, techUK

Laura is techUK’s Programme Manager for Technology and Innovation.

She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies across business, including Geospatial Data, Quantum Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies.

Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally in London, Singapore and across the United States as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.

Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.

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Zoe Brockbank

Programme Coordinator, Policy, Tech and Innovation, techUK

Zoe is a Programme Assistant, supporting techUK's work across Policy, Technology and Innovation.

The team makes the tech case to government and policymakers in Westminster, Whitehall, Brussels and across the UK on the most pressing issues affecting this sector and supports the Technology and Innovation team in the application and expansion of emerging technologies across business, including Geospatial Data, Quantum Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies.

Before joining techUK, Zoe worked as a Business Development and Membership Coordinator at London First and prior to that Zoe worked in Partnerships at a number of Forex and CFD brokerage firms including Think Markets, ETX Capital and Central Markets.

Zoe has a degree (BA Hons) from the University of Westminster and in her spare time, Zoe enjoys travelling, painting, keeping fit and socialising with friends.

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