The key challenge for CIOs in 2022

Awareness of the environmental impact of digital technology within organisations is growing. In France, digital technology accounts for 2% of emissions. If nothing is done, this weight could more than triple to 7% by 2040. At the company level, initial benchmarks (INR and GreenIT) show that the GHG footprint of digital technology relative to employees is in the range of 250 to 460 kg of C02 per FTE per year (click here to find out the equivalent of 1 kg of CO2).

At the same time, IT departments already have many challenges ahead of them: attracting the best talent, supporting business lines in their digital transformation, being a vector of innovation, knowing how to take advantage of data, guaranteeing cybersecurity and quality of service, knowing how to adapt quickly and controlling costs.

This may lead to growing temptation to deprioritise the reduction of the environmental footprint of digital services. Ultimately, who will still be in the business in 2040 and remember the decisions not made years earlier?

Nevertheless, we believe it is important to treat this topic as a key issue today. This article aims to explain the main reasons and to deliver the key levers that allow the reduction of the environmental footprint and the performance of the IT department to be combined.

Why limit the carbon footprint of the IT department?

Reducing the carbon footprint of the IT department should not be seen as a new injunction, but as a real opportunity to provide a complementary response to the many issues already on the agenda:

Most large groups have defined or are in the process of defining a trajectory of zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030-2050. The ISD is a contributor with its own levers. To achieve these corporate objectives, we must therefore start now and on all fronts.

Being more frugal and efficient reduces the environmental impact per user. The cleanest energy is the energy we don’t use.

Employees and customers are increasingly sensitive and concerned about their direct and indirect environmental impact. They are keen to join a company or buy products from a company that also cares.

Regulations will require more and more involvement from IT departments on the environmental front. For example, the REEN law aims to reduce the environmental footprint of digital technology in France (1). It imposes changes aimed at limiting the renewal of digital devices, promoting data centres and networks that consume less energy, encouraging ecologically considerate digital uses and raising awareness of the environmental impact of digital technology. These obligations will only increase in the years to come.

Thinking under constraint poses a new framework that requires responses that break with what already exists. The constraint linked to limiting the environmental footprint leads to a profound review of habits and can be a source of innovation (e.g. completely rethinking the design of applications based on eco-responsible practices. Or working with its suppliers to implement a circular economy around certain high-value components. This is what Google does with the precious metals contained in the servers in its datacentres.

What are the levers for limiting the IT department's carbon footprint?

The levers to be activated to reduce the IT Department’s carbon footprint are often the same as those aimed at optimising the IT Department’s economic and operational performance. We will discuss them in more detail below. What is new, however, is:

  • On the one hand, the new dimension that the carbon footprint will give to certain levers with an impact that is not only economic but also environmental (e.g. reducing the replication of a company’s data makes it possible to offer a cheaper service, improve the quality of the data and emit fewer greenhouse gases);
  • On the other hand, the change in mindset makes the activation of certain levers more acceptable. An emblematic example is the extension of the lifespan of equipment. Having the latest mobile phone model at all times used to be an attractive feature. Today, what makes a company attractive to a growing number of employees is the possibility of having repairable equipment (e.g. Fairphone) or extending the life of equipment as long as it is in working order.   

Thus, we have grouped the main levers to be activated to reduce the IT department’s carbon footprint while improving its performance into 6 categories.   

  • Pool and harmonise the demands of the professions as much as possible and thus limit the number of new demands.  
  • Challenge the service levels expressed: adapt the performance and availability levels of applications to their level of criticality and make them evolve according to needs during the day or over the year.  
  • Limit the development of unused features: initially finance only MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) and not projects in their entirety over several years. This makes it possible to verify the real impact and use of the features and to stop making new developments when the optimum is reached. 
    • Develop new applications using eco-design practices. This requires training and coaching of project stakeholders in these practices.  
    • Identify the existing applications with the greatest environmental impact in order to evaluate the benefits of optimising them. Integrate this new dimension into the IS Master Plan to build a roadmap for the development of applications with regard to environmental issues.   
    • Analyse the real use of the functionalities (depending on the case: at the service, page or functional level) in order to provide factual decision criteria to the business departments and thus decide whether or not to perpetuate the existing services.  
    • For the most visited “front-end” applications: use a tool to measure eco-design metrics in order to progressively improve the service footprint (sprint after sprint, functional evolution after functional evolution).   
  • Delete historical data: too old (e.g. those that have exceeded the limits of legal obligations), redundant and unused.   
  • Change data distribution practices: limit the data displayed automatically (push mode) and make the rest of the data accessible after a specific action by the user (pull mode). For example, display only the 10 most relevant results of a search and ask for an additional “click” to access the rest of the results.   
  • Reduce data replication: assess the opportunity to promote “golden sources” of reference data. This action will also improve the quality of the data.   
  • Simplify data models and thus reduce the number of data calls per application.  
  • Extend the duration of the assignment of workstations and mobile phones to employees: aim for a minimum lifespan of 6 years, while waiting for the manufacturers’ ecosystem to make it easier to go beyond that, and do not systematically renew them.  
  • Limit the number of devices per employee: eliminate PCs supplied to external service providers in favour of virtual access on their own workstations (VDI virtual office), favour pro-personal uses for smartphones (e.g. COPE – Corporate Owned, Personally Enabled or BYOD – Bring Your Own Device), replace landline telephones with softphones, do not systematically allocate a second screen, and favour the pooling of equipment.  
  • Turn off workstations at the end of the day.  
  • Raise awareness and encourage good practice: replace email attachments with links to shared folders, limit the use of video during calls, limit stored data and encourage data cleansing, encourage wifi connection (4)   
  • Choose hosting companies that seriously integrate environmental issues into their offerings   
  • Consider with great caution the gains made through the purchase of “green electricity” (PPA – Power Purchased Agreement-, GO – Guarantee of Origin): this method of reporting GHGs in scope 2 according to the market based method (contractual allocation based on the emissions factors of the electricity supplier) is generally not very representative of the physical reality of electricity production. However, the physical reality is tangible when the location-based method (geographical allocation based on the global emissions factor of the countries) is used.  
  • Limit the infrastructure footprint: conduct IT decommissioning and rationalisation programmes, limit the number of upstream environments, use high-performance virtualisation technologies, put servers on standby outside of production hours, use low-speed hard drives. 
  • Migrate to the Cloud while being very careful to control the rebound effect (6) as well as the level of data replication, and play on the “GreenOpslevers 
  • Choose partners with a good carbon footprint: include the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions (scope 1, 2, 3) in the criteria for choosing suppliers (of hardware, software or services), and monitor the obsolescence policies of these suppliers.  
  • Choose partners to take back, recycle and recondition used equipment so that it can be reused by employees, schools or associations (e.g. PCs, phones).  
  • Deploy lean and agile operating methods: eliminate waste from the main IT processes, improve the productivity and performance of teams thanks to agility at scale, leading to performance gains of around 20 to 30%.   
  • Encourage teleworking: reduce the number of kilometres travelled by employees and service providers, reduce the number of square metres of office space and the associated services (maintenance, company canteen); while being vigilant about the knock-on effects. 

Rebound effect: the efficiency gains that are supposed to be achieved through resource and energy optimisation are offset by the fact that usage increases and behaviour adapts to the new conditions. We think we have reduced the environmental impact but in the end it increases.

Of course, in order to assess and manage the impact of these levers, the IT department must put in place the tools to measure the environmental footprint of digital technology. This new dimension will have to be added to the value-based assessment criteria used to decide whether to launch a new digital project.

It is also this evaluation that will release other more disruptive levers for reducing the digital footprint, such as the reduction of digital uses, the frugality of the data collected and stored or the use of low tech. Indeed, it is on the basis of factual elements that an arbitration at the highest level can be made. Priorities will have to emerge in order to decide between sometimes contradictory business, IT and environmental objectives. The 2022 project is a major but essential undertaking.