The Environmental Impact of Digitalisation: What’s Your Take on Sustainable Technology?

What’s your take on sustainable technology? Discover the environmental impacts of digitalisation and how the tech industry can reduce its carbon footprint.

As our lives revolve increasingly around digital technology, concerns about the environmental impact of digitalisation have grown. Advancements within the tech industry continue to revolutionise how we live, work and communicate, but it comes at a cost. From the massive amounts of energy required to power data centres to the disposal of electronic waste, the environmental impact of the tech industry has come under scrutiny.

Digitalisation has resulted in a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change and global warming. According to the UN, the tech industry currently accounts for 2-3% of global emissions and is thought to increase rapidly as digitalisation takes over. The tech industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is set to continue increasing if not addressed, with enterprise technology responsible for emitting 350 to 400 megatons of carbon dioxide alone. In 2021, the UK government introduced a Net Zero Strategy to decarbonise all sectors of the economy by 2050. This strategy is significant for the tech industry, as it is one of the fastest-growing and most energy-intensive sectors of the UK economy.

Tech businesses must take a proactive approach to adopting sustainable technologies in order to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. As the demand for sustainable technology continues to grow, businesses that prioritise sustainable practices are likely to be better positioned for long-term success. In fact, there are already examples of tech companies leading the way in sustainable innovation, from using renewable energy to power data centres to developing products with eco-friendly materials.

Businesses and consumers are fast becoming more environmentally conscious, and a new wave of “green tech” is emerging as a result. The green tech industry is projected to grow rapidly in the coming years, with the market for renewable energy and energy-efficient technology expected to reach $35.5 billion by 2030. Green tech has considerable potential, not just in terms of reducing the environmental impact of digitalisation, but also in regard to creating new business opportunities and driving economic growth. As an industry, we must continue to push for sustainable innovation and adopt more ec0-friendly practices in our use of technology. But the question remains, can sustainability and digitalisation work in harmony?

In this article, we explore the environmental impact of digitalisation and the role of sustainable processes that support new technologies and ‘digitalisation’ in mitigating its effects. We’ll look at the key challenges facing the tech industry and the innovative solutions being developed to address them.

What’s in this article?

What is the environmental impact of the tech industry?

In the technology field, we deal with the future on a daily basis, and it is crucial to acknowledge the impact that our industry has on the environment. Sadly, the environmental impact of the tech industry has become a concern, as the carbon footprint continues to grow due to the expansion of data centres, cloud computing, and the widespread use of electronic devices.

Let’s take a closer look at the impact digitalisation is having on the environment…

  • Carbon footprint: The tech industry consumes massive amounts of energy to power data centres, servers, and other IT infrastructure. For example, data centres account for 45% of greenhouse gas emissions in the global ICT sector alone. This leads to a high carbon footprint as much of the energy comes from fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change. To negate the effects of carbon emissions, many tech firms like Microsoft, are choosing to offset their carbon emissions. However, there is concern that offsetting carbon emissions may not be enough to address the environmental impact of the tech sector.
  • Electronic waste: A vast amount of electronic waste is produced by the tech industry every year, as devices quickly become outdated. In fact, the amount of e-waste generated by the tech industry is set to rise by 347 million tonnes each year – only 17.4% is recycled properly. Electronic waste is a major environmental issue, as it can contain toxic substances, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, which can pollute the environment and harm human health. In addition, e-waste can contribute to climate change as it releases greenhouse gases during the disposal process.
  • Manufacturing: The manufacturing of electronic devices involves various stages that can have significant environmental impacts, such as the extraction of raw materials, transportation, production, assembly, and disposal. For example, the manufacturing stage of a smartphone is responsible for generating approximately 80% of its carbon footprint. During the production and assembly of electronic devices, the use of chemicals, solvents, and other hazardous substances can result in the release of pollutants into the air and water.
  • Mining: Producing electronic devices requires a significant amount of minerals and metals, which often require mining. Mining can have negative environmental impacts, such as deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and the loss of biodiversity. It’s estimated that 44% of all operational mines are situated in forests, contributing to deforestation, the displacement of wildlife and the loss of natural biodiversity. Mining can also generate waste and toxic substances, which can contaminate soil and water sources, leading to health hazards for nearby communities. 
  • Water consumption: Cooling data centres and manufacturing electronic devices need a significant amount of water, which can put a serious strain on local water resources in areas where water is scarce. For instance, data centres with several thousand servers can consume between 11 million and 19 million litres of water per day. This can lead to water shortages and can have severe consequences for communities and ecosystems that rely on those water sources. The manufacturing of tech can also contribute to water pollution, leading to contamination and adverse impacts on aquatic life and human health.

How can we improve our carbon footprint in tech?

As scientists continue to warn of the damaging environmental impact of our carbon footprints, it’s vital that the tech industry adopts more sustainable practices. Although tech is not the worst industry for greenhouse gas emissions, it has a social responsibility to not only mitigate its own carbon footprint but also help the world achieve net zero emissions and carbon neutrality.

Tech plays an important role in climate change, but it’s a catch-22 scenario. The fast-paced developments in technological products can often be used to help combat the climate crisis. Equally, on the other hand, developing innovative technologies can also exacerbate the situation by making it easier to extract fossil fuels. It’s a fine line between using technology to create a sustainable future and inadvertently perpetuating the very problems we are trying to solve!

So, how can your organisation move towards more sustainable technologies?

5 Ways you can contribute to reducing the tech industry’s carbon footprint

  1. Reduce energy consumption
  2. Transition to renewable energy
  3. Reduce e-waste
  4. Promote sustainable manufacturing
  5. Advocate for policy change

1. Reduce energy consumption

Energy consumption is one of the most significant contributors to the carbon footprint of the tech industry. Reports suggest that ICT accounted for 4-6% of all electricity consumption globally in 2020, which is forecasted to increase over the next five to ten years. To put this in perspective, devices account for 60% of the electricity consumption during the use phase of the ICT sector, while networks and data centres are responsible for 20% each.

To reduce energy consumption, tech companies can look to take various measures, such as using energy-efficient hardware and software, optimising data centre cooling systems, implementing virtualisation and cloud computing, and encouraging employees to adopt sustainable practices.

  • Energy-efficient devices – use less energy to perform the same functions as their less efficient counterparts. Opting for environmental technologies can reduce your energy consumption while saving your business money on utility bills – a win-win! Using energy-efficient devices can also improve the overall efficiency and productivity of your organisation, as they often have longer lifetimes, require less maintenance and operate more quietly than inefficient technology.
  • Avoid leaving devices on standby – andencourage staff to turn off devices when they are not in use, as this can have a considerable impact on reducing energy consumption within your business. By simply turning off devices and not leaving them to run continuously, individuals and businesses can save energy and reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Optimising data centre operations – is critical in reducing the tech sector’s carbon footprint. In fact, the UN’s 2021 IPCC Report advised that drastic measures need to be taken to minimise our effect on climate change or we face a global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century. Outsourcing data storage and processing to cloud providers can achieve economies of scale and energy efficiency. Reducing the number of physical servers required decreases power consumption and cooling demands. Cooling is also one of the largest consumers of energy in a data centre and measures should be taken to introduce more efficient cooling systems, such as free cooling or liquid cooling.
  • Invest in renewable energy sources – like wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal power, to replace the use of fossil fuels.

2. Transition to renewable energy

Transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power is a crucial step towards reducing the carbon footprint of the tech industry. Fossil fuels are the primary source of energy for most of the world's electricity production, and the burning of these fuels is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. By transitioning to renewable energy, tech firms can significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and decrease their carbon footprint.

Many large tech companies have already made commitments to transition to renewable energy sources. For example, Apple has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2030, and part of that plan includes using 100% renewable energy to power its operations. Google has already achieved 100% renewable energy for its global operations by investing in wind and solar farms, and now plans to operate its data centres on carbon-free energy by 2030. Microsoft has also introduced several initiatives to help fulfil its commitment to being carbon negative by 2030, which includes investing in the conservation of forests, expanding its use of renewable energy sources and developing carbon capture technologies.

Switching to renewable energy sources can be a highly effective way for businesses to reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate the effects of climate change. By transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or geothermal power, businesses can significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to a more sustainable future. Investing in renewable energy projects can also provide businesses with a reliable and cost-effective source of energy, as well as potentially generating additional revenue streams. This can also help promote the development of renewable energy infrastructure and support the growth of the green economy.

3. Reduce e-waste

The amount of electronic waste, or e-waste, generated by the tech industry has become a significant environmental concern. E-waste not only takes up landfill space, but it can also release toxic chemicals into the environment if not properly disposed of. To reduce the amount of e-waste, individuals and businesses can take steps to properly dispose of their electronic devices and recycle them when possible.

Businesses can implement take-back programmes to collect and recycle their products. By offering employees a convenient and responsible way to dispose of their old electronic devices, tech firms can demonstrate their commitment to reducing e-waste and promoting sustainability. Moreover, businesses can also consider using products that are designed with recyclability in mind, using materials that can be easily reused or recycled. By using recycled materials in product design, companies can also reduce their carbon footprint and minimise the environmental impact of their manufacturing processes.

4. Promote sustainable manufacturing

Manufacturing electronic devices can have a serious environmental impact due to the release of pollutants into the air and water. In fact, it’s common to have waste gas streams with a flow rate of up to 400,000 normal cubic metres per hour (Nm³/h). However, manufacturers can introduce environmental practices to reduce their carbon footprint and minimise the environmental impact of their operations.

Reducing the use of hazardous materials in the production of electronic devices is one of the most important steps that tech manufacturers can take to reduce carbon emissions. Using more environmentally-friendly materials can minimise the risks associated with the manufacturing and disposal process, including the release of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the environment. By adopting more sustainable practices, tech manufacturers can help to protect the health and safety of workers, communities, and ecosystems, while also mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Tech organisations can also look to optimise energy use, reduce water consumption, and minimise waste generation throughout the production process. There are many ways to achieve this, including adopting energy-efficient manufacturing processes, implementing water-saving technologies, and developing closed-loop production systems that allow for the reuse and recycling of materials. Reducing waste generation can involve strategies such as designing products for longevity and repairability and using sustainable packaging materials.

5. Advocate for policy change

Governments have a critical role in promoting sustainability in the tech sector. Through policies and regulations, the government can promote environmental practices by introducing incentives, such as subsidies or tax incentives, and setting targets for emissions reductions that companies must comply with. In doing so, it creates a level playing field for sustainable technologies and manufacturing practices, and helps to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

At the same time, tech companies can also take a proactive role in advocating for sustainable practices and policies. Working closely with the government and other stakeholders to establish industry standards and codes of conduct can help achieve sustainability goals. This can involve collaboration with NGOs, academic institutions and other businesses to develop best practices and share knowledge regarding sustainable technologies and manufacturing processes.

Moreover, organisations can leverage their influence and resources to invest in research and development, creating new products and innovative technologies that are more environmentally friendly. By doing so, they can not only reduce their carbon footprint but also create new opportunities for growth and innovation in green tech. Through collaboration and innovation, we can help to drive the transition to a more sustainable future and create a more equitable and prosperous world for all.

How will tech support sustainability?

It’s crucial for tech organisations to implement a sustainable mindset and incorporate environmentally friendly practices into their business operations to help lead the way in achieving net zero emissions. Tech companies should take into consideration the government’s sustainability objectives, which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving the management of e-waste and procuring sustainable technologies. However, the tech industry is making leaps and bounds in the development of new environmental technologies that support the transition towards a low-carbon economy.

So, how exactly can tech help create positive change in the fight against climate change?

  • Renewable energy: Technology can help to increase the adoption of renewable energy sources such as hydro and geothermal power. This includes developing new technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of renewable energy sources, as well as the use of smart grids and energy storage solutions to make renewable energy more reliable and accessible.
  • Sustainable manufacturing: The tech industry plays an important role in improving the sustainability of the manufacturing process by reducing waste and emissions, promoting the use of sustainable materials, and improving the efficiency of production processes. Adopting circular economy principles, such as designing products for reuse and recycling, can help conserve natural resources. New technologies, such as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can optimise the production process and reduce energy consumption.
  • Energy efficiency: Smart technology in homes and buildings can help reduce energy consumption by automatically adjusting heating, cooling and lighting systems to reduce energy usage. Automation technologies can also be used in industrial processes, such as the use of sensors that monitor energy usage and adjust processes accordingly to optimise efficiency.
  • Digitalisation: The development of new technology can also help to reduce the environmental impact of other industries by enabling digitalisation and reducing the need for physical products and services. This includes areas such as e-commerce, telecommuting, and digital entertainment.
  • Environmental monitoring: Satellite and aerial imagery is used to monitor changes in land use, such as deforestation, and track changes in the Earth’s climate over time. Remote sensing can also help to monitor air and water quality by detecting pollutants and other environmental factors. Big data analytics plays a key role in identifying patterns and trends in environmental data, such as temperature changes and rainfall patterns, helping scientists predict future changes that could impact the environment.

What is FDM's commitment to the planet?

It’s never been more important for us to take action against climate change and rethink our industry’s impact on the environment. At FDM, we have announced our plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the steps we’ll take to get there. FDM has implemented a range of initiatives, including a switch to renewable energy sources, reducing energy consumption across its global offices, and promoting sustainable travel practices for its employees.

Since 2021 when our UK centres adopted a hybrid model of working, our All-in-One desktop machines have become surplus. With our commitment to sustainability, we decided to donate these computers to schools in need. For our beneficiaries, it provides access to much-needed technology, which would otherwise be unaffordable and allows them to enhance their educational capabilities. 

Our IT team ensured our equipment was refurbished and upgraded to the highest specifications before donating 129 All-in-One to 12 schools across England.

In 2022, we played our part in creating a more sustainable future for the planet. Here’s what we achieved:

  • Our overall greenhouse gas emissions per employee reduced by 2%
  • Our Scope 2 emissions from electricity decreased by 63%
  • We lowered our annual greenhouse gas emissions to 0.48 tCO2e per employee
  • Our London headquarters received 100% renewable electricity for the whole year
  • We were awarded a ‘B’ rating from CDP for our climate-change governance
  • Our greenhouse gas emission targets were validated by SBTi

For more information, check out FDM’s carbon reduction plan or get in touch today.

About Preeta Ghoshal

Preeta is a content writer with over 10 years’ experience across print, digital and broadcast media. She has worked extensively in multi-media content creation. Her work reflects a mix of subject matter research and storytelling to produce content that is both informative and easily digestible. She is presently providing content support to each of the FDM programmes and the wider marketing team.

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