Tristan Nitot is a Sustainability Lead with Scaleway. He discusses the complicated relationship between digital and climate change in this article.
Upton Sinclair said, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” All of us are encouraged to make things that are more expensive and sexier for the clients. But, then, it’s not necessarily helpful for the planet.
From 1900 the temperature started to go very steeply upwards. We invented the steam engine, which was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where we started to burn everything that we could find, including coal, oil, and gas, to produce machines and make machines run. It has changed the world completely. We have machines, and these machines need energy. Energy produces greenhouse gases. This creates global warming. It is going to get worse, and we need to stop it. If there is one thing to remember, it is that climate change will make extreme weather events more frequent and more intense. The more we burn oil, coal, and gas, the warmer and worse it gets. It will take a lot of work to turn this around. It’s not easy, but we must do this to have a future for humanity and our children.
Very often, we hear, “Technology will save us.” Technology can help us, but it may not be the solution.
Here are a few examples of how technology can help fight climate change –
- Supercomputers enable IPCC climate simulations to help us study climate change
- AI powers nuclear fusion research
- It enables remote work, reducing the need to travel
- Smart thermostats and IoT can help save energy
- It enables a circular economy with platforms such as Vinted, LeBonCoin, BackMarket, eBay, etc.
But digital technology is also part of the problem.
In 1971, the first commercial CPU was sold. It was the start of a revolution. Every two years, the number of transistors in a chip doubles, which makes the chip more powerful. Therefore, the software industry doesn’t have to work on software optimization. Because you know that two years from now, you will get new computers and devices that will be twice as fast, twice as powerful, so you know that even if you write poor software, it will be fine in two years or go a complete change. So, as we generate more devices, we generate more e-waste. This is the main problem. Digital emissions are growing fast. We need to reduce them drastically. Manufacturing terminals make up 76% of the carbon footprint in France.
To make this better and ensure that the advantages of digital technology are more than the disadvantages, technologists can do the following –
- Get trained
- Measure the impact of your work and track progress.
- Optimize architecture and software – take something already existing and make it more efficient.
- Practice eco-design – When building something, ensure it is worth building, consider how it can be simplified, and use as few resources as possible.
- Avoid contributing to Planned obsolescence – Way too often, a terminal or device in working condition is replaced by a newer one because new software makes it obsolete. For example, a smartphone becomes obsolete in 23 months on average. Most of the time, it still works, but the new applications are too heavy to run on the phone. These are unnecessary additions to e-waste.
- Ensure that your product is compatible with older and less powerful devices.
- Product software should also run on older versions of Operating Systems.
Is moving to the cloud a good solution?
It could be. Usually, Cloud service is managed at an industry scale by experts. So, it is more efficient than having local servers on a smaller scale. While engaging a provider, ensure they do not use too much water to cool their servers. Ensure that they use less energy. Engage with providers who reuse their hardware.
A lot has changed over the past few years. Sustainability is no longer a “nice-to-have”; it is getting mandated by law. There are tracking mechanisms, targets, rules, and laws in place worldwide that ensure that companies operate sustainably.
As an individual, you can monitor your carbon footprint. Once you know your carbon footprint, you can find and implement ways to improve it. Shop wisely, invest wisely, and volunteer locally to reduce the carbon footprint.