Taking a lifecycle approach to the sustainability of technology


Thibaut Meurge-Geyard is a co-founder at Found and Seek Facilitator at Climate Fresk, Singapore.

Carbon footprint is the key metric companies use to calculate the impact of a process.  Today, 4% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are due to digital technology, almost twice as much as aviation. So, we are talking about something that is not insignificant. In this article, Thibaut discusses sustainability of technology.

IT Sustainability Circle

The cradle-to-grave approach is made of trying to take a step back and understanding the impact of the life of a device. It’s not the perfect approach, but it is comprehensive and does not miss much.

Manufacturing – Roughly 70% to 75% of the impact of technology is because of manufacturing. An iMac requires 200 Kg of fossil fuels, 600 Kg of minerals extracted from the Earth’s crust, and 2 tons of fresh water. This is what we call an ecological backpack.

Usage – More than data centers, emails, storage, etc., videos are a bigger culprit for data and energy usage.

Obsolescence – If we have an appliance that is hard to repair or broken, we know it is hardware obsolescence. We also have software obsolescence. Instead of using the gains of optimization that we have for saving energy, we use the energy for additional performance. This is called a rebound effect.

Recycling – Worldwide, roughly, we have 54 million tons of electronic waste due to end-user devices. That represents roughly 170 cargo ships in Singapore Bay. Recycling is not as simple as it sounds.

Let’s take the example of an apple pie. You need ingredients if you want to cook an apple pie and apple tart. We need to combine these ingredients, and in the end, you need to cook them using electricity and oven, etc. But, at the end of the session, for the leftovers, we are asked to give the ingredients back in the same form as earlier; we cannot do that. Similarly, everything cannot be recycled back to the form we used. Today, it’s not profitable to recycle. The fact that everything is miniaturized and complexified makes it very complex.

Building sustainable technology is neither black nor white. To start, before we invest in high technology projects, we should know the reason for doing that. We have to be sure that it is required and is of help. So, we need to ask ourselves some important questions –

  • Is can build the technology, but do I need it?
  • Is the technology good or bad?
  • What are the emissions that we are looking at?
  • What is the rebound effect? How should we use our optimization gains?

Why are companies moving towards sustainability?

Governments are tiptoeing on sustainability, but companies are becoming more aware. People and their mindsets are shifting. We have reached a maturity where we know the impact of things. We have the tools and the technical maturity to evaluate these impacts. We also have more pressure from external stakeholders to drive lesser carbon footprints.

What can software teams do?

  • Deploy software eco-design.
  • Use greener habits on websites
  • Use greener apps
  • Train and certify your team to eco-design
  • Use low-definition and small-screen streaming
  • Deploy greener infrastructures
  • Reduce data consumption
  • Audit your digital footprint
  • Pool resources

To conclude, changing and shifting the mindset is going to be key. We need to change the approach of the way we are looking at technology.

Thibaut Meurgue-Guyard

Thibaut Meurgue-Guyard

Co-founder at Found & Seek
Versatile Sustainability practitioner driven focused on crafting meaningful connections and cross-generational solidarity. I am an advocate of an enthusiastic, solution-oriented sustainability that taps into the power of collaborative action. Strongly involved in NGOs, student education and impact-driven partnerships!

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