Digital technology is now so deeply embedded in everyday life, it’s sometimes easy to forget it’s even there. But the world’s ever-expanding use of technology comes with a cost that’s not always evident to the end user: the carbon footprint.

Some analysts have estimated that, since 2007, the ICT sector’s share of the world’s carbon footprint has more than doubled from 1.5% to 4%. That’s a big jump. And the numbers are still growing. While precise estimates are always difficult to make this far out, some think ICT could be heading towards 14% of global emissions by 2040.

And that’s all the more likely if, as expected, we continue to see ever greater uptake of energy-intensive technologies like AI and blockchain. Consider that Bitcoin is reputed to consume more energy in a year than the entire nation of Switzerland. More efficient solutions are urgently needed.

Uniting technology and sustainability

It’s just one of the many reasons why enterprise technology and sustainability are now fundamentally entwined. CIOs and their companies have a pivotal role to play in driving up sustainability across the global economy and helping the world get to net zero.

To support these vital efforts, we’ve just published a new  report exploring the need for greater alignment between companies’ technology and sustainability strategies.

It explains why CIOs should be focused on three key imperatives: using technology to accelerate sustainability, making technology itself more sustainable, and scaling up the impact of sustainability initiatives with the broader ecosystem.

There’s a lot of great insights throughout the report. Especially on the way organizations can put technology to use to solve historical sustainability challenges while also unlocking business value.

But I’d like to highlight a few areas that I think are particularly relevant to software engineering.

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Time to embrace green software

The first is the potential for “green software” to drive a step-change in enterprise IT sustainability. Of course, software doesn’t itself emit any carbon. But software needs to run on hardware—which does.

The implication? Seen within the broader context of enterprise IT, the way we design, develop and deploy software can have a big impact on the carbon footprint. It therefore needs to be an integral part of the sustainability strategy.

A new framework

In our new report, we set out some of the priorities for green software. These include driving up the use of efficient development practices, reducing the energy consumption of AI models, rethinking how we design distributed ledgers, and more.

Cloud infrastructure is one great example of the potential. Accenture’s research suggests the carbon impact of migrating to public cloud could be the same as taking 22 million cars off the road.

What’s more, cloud infrastructure is getting more efficient all the time. Google, for example, is now using a carbon-intelligent platform that lets its data centres run workloads at the optimal time of day for making use of renewable energy sources

Small changes can have an outsized impact

There’s an important point here. You don’t need to do a full-scale cloud migration to enhance sustainability. Sometimes, even simple changes can make a big difference.

Did you know that application user interfaces in “dark mode” (light text on a dark background) produce about 60% fewer carbon emissions? On a single smartphone, that can help extend your battery life. But scale it up across an entire global organization, and you’ve got a potentially large impact on sustainability.

Another example? Streaming video in high definition can be 8x more carbon intensive than standard definition. Yes, in some use cases, lower definition clearly degrades the experience. But there are plenty of situations where users wouldn’t even notice the difference.

Ultimately, it’s about finding the balance between software performance and energy consumption that works for each individual use case.

Scaling it up to make a difference

Another key theme in our new report is the need for partnership. Working with the ecosystem is the key to enabling sustainability at scale. The challenges are just too great, too complex, too systemic, for any one organization to solve on its own.

Consider green software again. Just think about all the new skillsets, design specifications, and cross-industry standards needed to drive up the adoption of green development principles. it needs a whole ecosystem of different organizations to come together.

It’s a key reason Accenture became a co-founder and steering member of the Green Software Foundation. This non-profit has a mission to build a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling and best practices to help change the whole culture of the tech industry and its approach to sustainable software.  I am honoured to be a part of the steering committee of GSF, helping drive critical change in the industry.

At Accenture, we already trained more than 70,000 developers on sustainable software engineering practices. We also collaborate with partners — from the largest software and cloud companies to small, disruptive innovators — to help clients achieve their sustainability objectives and deliver outcomes.

Be ready, not reactive

Technology is going to be a key tool in helping enterprise ecosystems support the journey to net zero. But, at the same time, we mustn’t forget that technology itself needs to be more sustainable.

The onus is on CIOs to take a fresh look at their sustainability strategies and put both these concepts at the centre, as they plot a path to a more sustainable future.

Sanjay Podder

Managing Director and Global Lead, Technology Sustainability Innovation

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