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Code Green: How Can Tech Be a Part of the Climate Solution?

a woman sitting at a desk on a laptop in a forest

I attended a meetup on September 28th hosted by Oliver Winks, Adam Newman, and the Green Software Foundation at WRAP Brighton, and can’t stop thinking about the main topic of discussion: How the tech industry is contributing to climate change. I am a junior WordPress web developer at Bamboo Nine and will be celebrating my first year as a dev this January. Cause for celebration, sure – but at what cost? I’m self-taught, and a large portion of my network is also self-taught, or currently working through online tutorials which often encourage building basic projects on top of huge frameworks with a ton of dependencies.

Do we need to worry every time we spin up another local WordPress website or start a new side project? How about every time you run npx create-next-app for your bookstore React App tutorial? I got plenty of answers to my questions at this fantastic Green Software meet-up, but the talk was so engaging and informative that I left the room with more questions than I had before the event.

Oliver had the unlucky task of introducing the current state of affairs to the room,  and the picture is pretty bleak. His research was focused and relevant, but a lot of the data was from 2018 and earlier, which means the recent AI bubble and a significant portion of the cryptocurrency fad hadn’t been factored in. Staying on top of this data will be critical to visualise what kind of effect AI and blockchain technologies have had on the carbon footprint of the IT industry in the last five years. 

The predictions are clear – if global governments and corporations don’t make a collective effort to curb carbon emissions, the planet is going to heat exponentially, to the point of potentially being uninhabitable for humans within a few generations.

The main question for those working in the tech industry is:  How can software and tech be a part of the climate solution, rather than contributing to the problem? 

The Green Software Foundation’s Action points for reducing carbon emissions are: 

  • Using fewer physical resources
  • Using less energy
  • Using energy more intelligently

These action points might seem small, but I am a true believer in the power of collective action. Companies can play a huge role in changing the tech “ecosystem” by enforcing industry standards which focus on reducing the impact on the energy grid and improving software and hardware efficiency. For instance, running heavy duty processes at quieter times of the day, or tactically selecting servers depending on location. The Green Software Foundation has a brilliant solution for this: The Carbon Aware SDK. 

What is the CarbonAware SDK? An SDK is a Software Development Kit, and The Green Software Foundation’s Carbon Aware SDK helps developers build software “when the wind is blowing, enable systems to follow the sun, moving around the world to where energy is the greenest, and create tools that give insights and help software innovators to make greener software decisions. All of this helps reduce carbon emissions.” (source)

You might say “Ok… but the carbon emissions of the tech industry aren’t all that bad compared to loads of other industries. Right?”

Oliver delivered the factual goods in October’s meetup. His slides looked at the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) industry’s footprint compared to other industries, like aviation. Studies suggest the percentage of global emissions caused by ICT is between 1.8 – 2.8%, but could be as much as 2.1 – 3.9%. To put this in perspective, the aviation industry contributes 2.5 – 3.5% of emissions, depending on whether CO2 emissions are taken into account. (source)

One of the major blocks to improving the ICT’s industry’s carbon footprint is the lack of accurate measuring tools and data. The pie chart below, from “The real climate and transformative impact of ICT: A critique of estimates, trends, and regulations” (Freitag, Berners-Lee, Widdicks, et al, 2021) shows how much variation in the data we have to contend with. These charts show three significantly different predictions: A.  Andrae and Edler (2015): 2020 best case (total of 623 MtCO2e). B. Belkhir and Elmeligi (2018): 2020 average (total of 1,207 MtCO2e). C. Malmodin (2020): 2020 estimate (total of 690 MtCO2e).

pie chart representing digital footprint

An interesting goal of the Green Software Brighton group is to promote better measurement of the energy being consumed. Docker, for instance, can measure how much CPU is being used per container and how much memory each container is using. Personally, I am interested to see how better training and awareness around what we are building on a day-to-day basis can affect overall energy consumption.

Learning and training could start as early as primary school when computer science classes are introducing Scratch and Python. Bootcamps around the world are churning out junior developers at an incredible rate, what a fantastic opportunity to encourage bright minds to improve the face of the tech industry.

Finally, it’s important to mention what measures we’re taking at Bamboo Nine to reduce our environmental impact. We highly recommend our clients use Kinsta as their hosting provider due to its great customer support, and powerful and speedy infrastructure, but also because it is a green hosting company. It uses Google Cloud Platform and Cloudflare, ensuring all websites are run on 100% renewable energy! Current and new clients can sign up for our Web Maintenance Package, which will transfer you to Kinsta Hosting and ensure that we can get your site optimised for the most efficient and environmentally friendly performance.

If you want to find out more, get in touch with us using our details below, and don’t forget to check out Green Software Brighton’s MeetUp Page for upcoming events. 

  • Nov 16th, 2023 – 2pm – An online discussion on Decarbonizing Software
  • January 24th, 2024 – 6pm at WRAP in Brighton – The Environmental Impact of AI