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Green software’s role in sustainable government operations

5-minute read

October 12, 2022

Software can seem like an intangible entity, but it has very real impacts on our physical world. For software to power the programs and pages that build our digital lives, it must consume energy to operate, potentially contributing to climate change. Consider an extreme example – the explosive growth in cryptocurrency mining. The power required annually to produce Bitcoin equals Argentina's total energy consumption, with carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to all of Greece.

One research study found that global computing could be responsible for as much as 2.1-3.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, greater than the aviation industry.

We know that by using more environmentally-friendly physical infrastructure – such as green data centers that draw from renewable energy sources, or that use low-power servers – we can reduce the carbon footprint of computing. However, equally important is an emphasis on how we design, develop, and deploy the software that runs overtop that hardware. We can reduce carbon emissions from technology even further by ensuring software runs as efficiently as possible, thus using the least amount of energy necessary.

Given the climate change crisis, all enterprises have a responsibility to rein in carbon emissions as they expand their use of technology, particularly the U.S. federal government. Yet, this “green software” approach has benefits beyond just sustainability. Accenture surveyed commercial organizations and found that 44% report that focusing on sustainability helps build better quality software.

A more efficient use of compute resources can also reduce costs and improve how agencies meet mission needs. Federal technologists face a number of daunting challenges right now, including implementing zero trust models and retiring technical debt. Yet, more sustainable IT through green software is not a net-new goal to work toward; rather, it is in line with the well-worn mission imperatives of advancing operational efficiency, stability, and effectiveness.

What is green software for the federal government?

Green software is a discipline that emphasizes energy efficiency as a core software metric, alongside the traditional parameters of functionality, security, and scalability.

A green software approach can be adopted across a number of impact areas according to Accenture's research including:

  • Green software development cycles: Adopting energy-efficient practices across the software development lifecycle - from selecting platforms, and programming languages, to designing software architecture and DevOps, to save energy, reduce emissions, and develop carbon-efficient software.

  • Green UI/UX: Driver user-friendly digital experience with effective accessibility - easier navigation and therefore lower screen time, reducing emissions, optimizing performance by selection of screen color, evaluating screen's processing power, and compressing content and images.

  • Green cloud: Encouraging data center to cloud migrations, appropriate hosting decisions, and green application development on the cloud for hardware and energy efficiency. Prior Accenture research found that “migrations to the public cloud can reduce CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year which equates to taking 22 million cars off the road.”
    • Green cloud is rapidly maturing as major cloud service providers prioritize more sustainable cloud architectures. Furthermore, tools exist that can help organizations design more sustainable cloud solutions, such as Accenture’s myNav® Green Cloud Advisor.

Independently, some of these steps may seem insignificant. However, the impact can be tremendous when applied to the applications running 24x7 to support over 350 million people living in this country. 

Ultimately, green software is about intelligently designing and deploying software for the best use of resources. It can help agencies achieve more value from technology investments while reducing emissions.

Existing federal efforts already fit into a green software approach. The Federal Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI), created as part of the 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, directed agencies to optimize data centers and achieve maximum server utilization and energy efficiency. These efforts have saved agencies billions of dollars. In a 2019 memorandum on the Initiative, then-federal CIO Suzette Kent noted, “Rather than focusing on infrastructure alone, agencies must consider what applications are running in their data centers to facilitate further consolidation and optimization.” As agencies potentially shift their emphasis from data center consolidation to focus more on data resiliency, sustainability, and availability, green software can support efforts.

Measuring green software

How can federal agencies begin to shape their green software approach?

Accenture is a founding member of the Green Software Foundation, partnering with the Linux Foundation alongside GitHub, Microsoft, and ThoughtWorks. The Green Software Foundation has released the Software Carbon Intensity (SCI) Specification, which can serve as a compass for reducing the total carbon footprint of software. It scores a software system based on its carbon emissions, enabling developers to easily track software carbon intensity like they track cost, performance, security, and other concerns.

The SCI outlines three principles for reducing the carbon emissions of software:

  • Use less hardware. For example, take advantage of the elasticity of the public cloud.

  • Use less energy. Examples are improving the speed of users' task completion or server performance, so the software can run more efficiently and consume fewer resources.

  • Use energy thoughtfully. Do more when the energy supply is cleaner and less when the energy supply is dirtier. An example is scheduling routine backups during peak times of alternative energy supply.

Agencies can adopt these principles by setting them as overarching goals and identifying the initial use cases that can be most readily integrated with a green software mindset.

Third-party software integrators and providers will also be critical partners – evaluate their understanding and commitment to the approach.

Overall, government’s sustainability journey will be deeply tied to its technology journey. For example, future developments like the metaverse may replace one form of energy consumption with another. As such, government needs to blend sustainability into the very essence of how it operates day-to-day; green software is an essential framework for doing that.

By making energy efficiency a core metric by which to measure the success of software, agencies can simplify operations and ultimately improve how they meet mission needs – while contributing to a greener future.


Christopher Copeland

Chief Technology Officer – Accenture Federal Services