Powering IT: How technology is going greener in 2024

by | April 25, 2024

Earth Day inspires conversations about our roles and responsibilities in caring for the planet, and this year, that conversation is more important than ever. Climate change is affecting many parts of human life, even the way we do business – billions of dollars are lost globally every year due to the effects of climate change. Luckily, IT leaders and big thinkers are aiming to do their part to make change– and technology shows some amazing potential to lower human impact and aid in climate and planet restoration.

Today, many companies are choosing to further their sustainability goals in the name of protecting the planet and themselves with resilience in mind. There are great incentives to make positive, planet-friendly decisions that help organizations save money and lower their ecological footprint, thanks to rapid innovation and care by the IT industry. Let’s explore some recent milestones worth celebrating.

1. Energy

Information Technology, driven by a desire for increased productivity and sustainability goals, has transformed the use and generation of energy in recent years, echoing a long history of innovation. Take AI, for example– we can’t talk about energy without addressing it.

In our recent blog post, we shared some insights from UPSTACK Podcast guest Dr. Jonathan Koomey, an expert on the energy and environmental effects of information technology, about the similarities between our current AI power struggles and the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s – much like in the early aughts, technology is evolving to meet high demands for power driven by AI and other energy-heavy technologies.

The innovations made now for sourcing this power could transform how we utilize energy in the future, achieving a net positive effect. According to Forbes, “The energy transition needs to be managed in a way that it does not impose high costs on the consumers, while ensuring reliable energy supplies and AI will act as an enabler to achieve both.”

Though AI is currently raising the demand for energy, companies utilizing the technology may be leveraging it as a means to lower their overall usage. And, power providers and large-scale users alike are becoming incentivized to adopt clean solutions for providing that energy as a means of finding a reliable and sustainable supply. “AI being a sunrise sector, presents an opportunity for being lower carbon right from its early stages,” the Forbes article continues. “We have the technological solutions to do so and a number of the top 10 companies globally that run data [centers] have adopted bold targets for achieving net zero emissions.”

As a new and emerging technology, AI can offset its high power impact by providing opportunities for cost savings and energy usage reduction. AI-driven utility mapping and optimization can, “unlike human intelligence, […] exploit the vast amounts of data, including measurement data that is continually updated, and apply them to plan for a specific temperature inside the rooms, around the clock, year-round.” Similarly, and sometimes in tandem, Smart and IoT technologies can help manage utility usage and monitor key energy outputs in homes, offices, factories, and more, helping streamline usage and cut out what’s not needed.

As mentioned, data centers are becoming more energy efficient than ever. Many are targeting aggressive sustainability goals and net-zero promises by adopting sustainable energy. Naturally, shared data centers already consume less energy than it takes to power on-prem equipment for individual enterprises (especially large ones). In aggregate, this is beneficial to the overall impact of the IT industry.

Another milestone in the reduction of energy consumption is virtualization, which helps reduce the overall devices a company uses in general, and thus lowers their consumption. Virtualization helps reduce reliance on hardware by punting multiple functionalities and desktops to the cloud. The energy used to power a single device can now be used to run multiple OS / software applications, maximizing the efficiency of each device and reducing the need to power many.

Considering all of the incredible growth taking place in the energy sector and the innovative minds working to lower or reroute energy consumption, we’re confident in saying that the IT sector is helping propel the entire world to greener pastures.

2. Carbon

Many people are working remotely from offices and other places around the globe. This shift has encouraged companies to provide technology that integrates seamlessly into the routine of remote workers, with good experience and security. Even companies operating in centralized offices (usually large) or in traditionally less sustainable arenas are utilizing cloud + AI to make their enterprises more green. Those driving this shift in work location are using technology that has been rapidly growing, adapting, and improving since the pandemic – thanks to IT driving new initiatives to improve and perfect useful remote work tools.

Thanks to new and improving collaboration and UCaaS tools, sales reps can reduce their travel time and the ecological impact that comes along with it, yet potentially boost their total number of appointments due to the convenience of remote scheduling. But, make no mistake – every department can reduce the enterprise’s overall footprint, and many are utilizing remote work tools to do so.

Harvard Business Review reported that “dramatic changes in mobility, production, and consumption patterns, temporarily reduced global CO2 emissions by 17% in April 2020 compared to peak 2019 levels.” When employees went back to the office, emissions went back up. However, it’s estimated that roughly 30% of employees today either work remotely or in a hybrid environment, a notable figure compared to years past. The impact of such high figures just may be transformative in reducing emissions associated with business as usual.

For some, reducing travel for work isn’t quite possible – because their job is to travel. Logistics and transport companies large (think Amazon) and small (even hyperlocal delivery services) are utilizing software, telemetry and AI to plan more efficient routes, and many have committed to carbon offsetting, green vehicles, or even the ambitious goal of decarbonization.

Decarbonization is a strategy that relies on low-carbon emitting technologies to reduce the traditional carbon output of industries such as transportation and logistics. More and more innovative technologies are coming to light every day, and companies are using them in droves. Enterprises and industries of all sizes – from multinational oil conglomerates to local school buses to national shipping providers – are adopting technologies that are often loaded with incentives or directly funded by the government. In 2023, the United States invested in several environmental initiatives, including many that would make carbon-lowering technologies and tools attainable and attractive to multiple industries. The traction is continuing in 2024; in an especially exciting update earlier this month, the White House has shared that “[for] the first time since the mid-20th century, over 95 percent of this year’s planned new electric-generating capacity in the United States is zero-carbon.”

Across industries, cloud technologies remain a great equalizer. Cloud computing reduces carbon usage by 84% on average, says Accenture, and, per Forbes, “around 94% of all companies globally use cloud software currently, according to a report from Colorlib. That is a 14% increase since 2020.” With so many companies adopting cloud, providers and developers have been increasingly eager to perfect the experience, and this traction has aided in lowering carbon emissions across enterprises and industries. It’s these developments made by dedicated IT professionals that have greatly improved the carbon usage outlook globally in recent years.

3. Waste

You know the 3 R’s of environmentalism: reduce, re-use, and recycle.  Today, many companies are honing in on these tenets and focusing on waste reduction as a strategy to reduce ecological impact. As cloud transformations take place and virtualization reduces the overall acquisition of hardware, companies are thinking twice about where all of that obsolete hardware ends up.

The unfortunate truth about hardware is that many pieces, particularly phones and other battery-based devices, rely on the use of rare materials like cobalt, whose origins can be traced back to less-than-ethical operations.

In the Congo,“modern-day slave labor” is used in the extraction of cobalt used to power smartphone batteries and other devices. NPR, quoting Harvard human rights fellow Siddharth Kara, accounts the harrowing conditions:

‘”You have to imagine walking around some of these mining areas and dialing back our clock centuries,” Kara says. “People are working in subhuman, grinding, degrading conditions. They use pickaxes, shovels, stretches of rebar to hack and scrounge at the earth in trenches and pits and tunnels to gather cobalt and feed it up the formal supply chain.”’

Unfortunately, these materials quite often wind up in their origin countries after discard, creating health hazards and environmental devastation in their wake. According to APC, “Some studies have shown that 26,100 tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment enter the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) each year, of which 16,050 tonnes become e-waste. [1] Much of this is dumped, posing serious environmental and health risks.”

Fortunately, the IT industry is driving change in this area, and some is right around the corner. Apple has unveiled plans to utilize only fully recycled cobalt by 2025, and Tesla has vowed to improve their cobalt supply chain, including auditing suppliers and improving working conditions in the DRC.

In the best case scenario, devices utilizing cobalt can be eliminated altogether, thanks to the introduction and rapid refinement of cloud technologies like UCaaS and CCaaS. Using these solutions, companies can eliminate or drastically reduce phone acquisitions, removing cobalt from the equation altogether and reducing both the carbon used in shipping phones and the e-waste created upon discard. Recycling and donation are viable options for companies to help reduce waste– and may even serve as a tax write-off.

Donated phones can be used for a wide variety of worthy causes –  programs exist to provide your old phones to emergency services and those they serve, distribute them to soldiers and domestic violence survivors, and more. One program, Eco Cell, will even use them to generate funds to restore natural habitats disrupted by cobalt mining. Luckily, donations are on the rise, and the cell phone recycling industry is rapidly growing.

All of this e-waste reduction is a part of the circular economy, a model that naturally reduces waste by relying on material reuse and regeneration. In a recent episode of the UPSTACK Podcast, guest Zachary Smith, co-founder of the digital infrastructure company Packet, shares insightful sentiments about the potential for a circular economy in the data center segment.

“I think one of the easiest, most awesome [solutions would be] – if all of you data center people are out there – please introduce a paid recycling program!” he says, citing that such a program may pose mutual benefits for providers, customers, and the planet alike.

Guest and Packet co-founder Jacob Smith adds,“At some level, every enterprise becomes a service provider, or has one within them, or borrows one from someone else to do their thing technology-wise at scale, and that’s going to include a lot of this efficiency, circularity, [and] sustainability stuff. Because, you’re going to have to be expert at it to lead the market in it. And if it’s not important to you, you’re gonna push it on someone else and hope it goes away. I don’t think it’s a long-term option – 5 years, 10 years, max?”

Luckily, there’s hope on the horizon as more and more companies realize the potential benefits of a circular economy. Statista presents the following hopeful fact: “The worldwide revenue of circular economy transactions, comprised of the categories secondhand, rental, and refurbished goods, was estimated to total roughly 339 billion U.S. dollars in 2022. This was forecast to more than double by 2026.”

To learn more about the circular economy – how it’s currently utilized in IT and outlooks for the future – check out the full episode.

The bottom line

As innovation takes hold, many technologies are becoming greener, and those that can’t be optimized for sustainability are being phased out. Technology providers, consumers, and manufacturers alike are coming together to fine-tune IT to be more sustainable than ever, and we expect this trend will continue. We celebrate these wins and look forward to more as technology and the great minds behind it adapt and evolve for the future.

Are you feeling inspired? The aforementioned are only a small number of standout examples for sustainability transformations – there are plenty more to explore. UPSTACK can help you reach sustainability goals using innovative technologies, sustainable sourcing, and optimization solutions that will lower your impact while increasing your efficiency, agility, and productivity. Get in touch today to make a change together.