Digital sobriety, the other lever to reduce the energy and environmental impact of your company
With the increasing use of cloud solutions, companies tend to forget that digital tools and flows are far from being energy and environmentally neutral. At a time when any reduction in energy consumption counts, digital sobriety is becoming a significant item in the carbon footprint of companies and a full-fledged component of their CSR policy.
Digital has been so associated with the idea of “dematerialization” and the development of the cloud has so invisibilized IT infrastructures that it wasn’t until 2018 and the figures published by the Shift Project (report Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety) that a large audience became aware of the environmental impact of digital technology on a global scale. It is now known that the digital sector accounts for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of the energy used worldwide, both to produce digital equipment and infrastructure and to operate them, being of fossil origin. 4% may not seem like much in view of the services obtained in return and the emissions avoided in other sectors, except that emissions due to digital technology are increasing at a rate of 9% per year, which is incompatible with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
In France, due to the fact that most of the electricity used is of non-fossil fuel origin, the digital sector accounts for only 2% of national GHG emissions. This is a misleading view if we take into account imported emissions, since most digital equipment is produced outside France, using mainly carbon-based energy and materials (plastics, metals) whose production depends directly on fossil resources. The ADEME/Arcep study on the evaluation of the environmental impact of digital technology in France estimates that the digital sector accounts for 10% of French electricity consumption, but that terminals alone account for 79% of the carbon footprint of digital technology on a national scale.
A digital world that is not at all “immaterial”
In addition to the growing consumption of electricity due to the explosion of uses and the powerful “rebound effects” that systematically accompany energy efficiency gains, the production of equipment (servers, computers, smartphones, network equipment, etc.) is mobilizing not only growing volumes, but also an increasingly wide range of mineral and metal resources) is mobilizing not only growing volumes, but also an increasingly wide range of mineral and metal resources. However, the extraction of these resources, which are intrinsically non-renewable, is increasingly energy-intensive and generates waste and pollution, for two reasons:
- the decrease in the concentrations of the exploited deposits. For example, in the copper mines considered today as the “richest”, the copper content is only 0.2%. In an indium “rich” mine, there are only 100 grams of indium per ton of ore (0.01% concentration). As for gold, we are currently mining deposits with a grade of 0.0001%, or 1 gram of gold per ton of ore.
- the low recycling rate, due not only to the lack of organization or development of channels, but also to the dispersion of materials and the low recyclability of the complex alloys used in the digital industry. For example, the recycling rate for indium, gallium, tantalum and germanium found in smartphones is currently less than 1%.
In other words, well upstream of the use of digital technology, the dematerialization that it is supposed to bring results in phenomenal energy expenditure, an equally phenomenal production of waste and a proven depletion of certain resources that are indispensable for the continuation of the digital transition and the decarbonization of human activities.
How to become digitally “sober”
Faced with these facts, the only “sustainable” response – that is, one that reconciles the benefits of digital technology with climate and environmental issues – is to adopt a digital sobriety approach. If we take the Shift Project’s approach, digital sobriety at the individual level consists in “buying the least powerful equipment possible, in changing them the least often possible, and in reducing unnecessary energy-intensive uses“.
What seems feasible at the individual level, with a little good will, is much more complicated at the level of organizations, and even more so for companies whose economic performance and competitiveness are increasingly based on the digitization of processes and, therefore, an intensive use of digital technologies (hardware and software).
>>How can we deploy digital sobriety when the most common uses require more and more computing power, data flows and storage capacity?
>> How can we deliberately opt for frugality in an environment where everything pushes us to frequently renew our machine fleet, both to limit the maintenance costs linked to equipment that has become obsolete and to support applications that are ever more energy-intensive?
Actions within the reach of all companies
The commitment to sobriety, signed in October 2022 by French digital players or those operating in France, provides avenues for action that all companies can take as of today. Focused on reducing energy consumption, the commitments made by the signatories notably include:
data storage and management within the company
rationalization of data storage and implementation of mechanisms for better management of electronic documents
Websites and applications
development of light versions of websites and applications
choice of suppliers who have subscribed to the European code of conduct for energy efficiency in data centers
Companies with private data centers are also committed to evaluating the possibility of increasing temperature control by one to three degrees in the hosting spaces.
Workstations and connectivity
Knowing that computer equipment represents 21% of the electricity consumption of the office part of a company and that 75% of the consumption of IT equipment occurs during periods of inactivity, companies should encourage their employees to:
- prefer telephone meetings and, in the case of videoconferencing, activate the cameras only when necessary;
- use wifi and disable unused connectivity on devices (e.g. bluetooth);
- reduce the brightness of screens and turn off additional screens when not needed;
- put the workstation on extended standby or turn it off when you are away;
- recharge the batteries of the devices outside of peak consumption periods;
- do not keep the computer equipment under permanent load.
These recommendations sometimes go against habits that have recently become established in most companies and that are not so easy to reverse. This is particularly true of video conferencing, which has replaced the telephone since the Covid crisis. Unquestionably useful in telecommuting situations and when it avoids “carbon” travel by employees, videoconferencing is superfluous in many cases. Another case in mind is the systematization of use of a second screen. Larger than a laptop screen, it certainly allows you to work more comfortably, but it clearly doubles consumption.
Anchoring these new habits requires raising users’ awareness and monitoring the changes in consumption that result from their efforts. This can be done in a positive way, as part of the company’s CSR policy, for example in the form of a competition between departments or establishments of the same company.
Choose the right suppliers!
For a company, going further towards digital sobriety is not just about reducing the direct electricity consumption of its digital equipment. In a global approach, it must also take into account the environmental impact of the production of this equipment and, as far as possible, extend its lifespan. It is with this in mind that the Digital Environmental Reference System (REN) was set up, which quantifies the impact of the main digital equipment in terms of primary energy, material and water consumption, and CO2 emissions – both during production and use. This is a first step towards environmental labeling of digital products, which should help companies to make informed choices about their suppliers and to manage their equipment more responsibly. In this area, the most accessible lever for action is to reduce the frequency of equipment replacement. For example, in addition to material savings:
>> extending the lifespan of business laptops from 3 to 5 years can reduce the annual GHG emissions of a fleet of terminals by 37%.
>> extending the lifespan of business smartphones from 2.5 to 3.5 years reduces the emissions of the terminal fleet by 26%.
>> moving from 20% to 70% of smartphones for business and private use in the professional fleet also reduces GHG emissions from this fleet by 37%.
Finally, as a growing number of applications and services used in companies are cloud solutions delivered in SaaS mode, digital sobriety also means choosing virtuous suppliers and editors who are themselves part of a digital sobriety approach, both in terms of their choice of infrastructure and their development techniques and practices. At Nomadia, digital sobriety is a real commitment that translates into concrete actions. Some examples:
- Migration and consolidation of our applications in “green” data centers
- Mothballing of test and development environments at night and on weekends
- Automated testing reduces server downtime compared to manual testing (1 to 100 ratio)
- Multi-tenant applications require less infrastructure than single-tenant applications
- Closure of all server racks and virtualization of networks and IT and office resources
- Promotion of telecommuting for developers (less travel) and optimization of space/square footage dedicated to development thanks to telecommuting.
>> Remember that a complete carbon footprint takes into account the direct AND indirect emissions of your company. These include emissions from your application and digital service providers. By working with committed digital players, you not only improve your carbon footprint, but you also increase the chances that your company will be chosen by clients who are themselves concerned about reducing their energy and environmental footprint.