Tech and the carbon spiral – what is right?

Written by Avril Chester, Interim Exec Director Data & Tech at RIBA

‘The time is always right to do what is right’. Martin Luther King

In 2019, a fairly unknown report published by The Shift, a French think tank, claimed online video streaming in 2018 was responsible for nearly 300 million tons of CO2. This is ‘equivalent to what a country the size of Spain releases in a year – for all sectors combined’. And this is before Disney and Apple really entered the scene and announced the launch of their streaming services.

When we start to compare tech with other industries commonly associated with carbon emissions, what we are discovering is sobering. commented, ‘digital technologies have even surpassed the aerospace industry in terms of carbon emissions. While aviation’s share of global CO2 emissions is estimated to be around 2.5%, and rising, nearly 4% of all CO2 emissions can now be attributed to global data transfer and the necessary infrastructure’.

This is just one area of technology’s carbon responsibility. When chatting with Zoe Amar recently, she pointed out that Emily Chasan reported ‘data storage could balloon to 8% of planetary energy use by 2030’. Emails, images, digital files, AI models are all data which needs energy to preserve it in data servers.

So, acknowledging the challenges faced by our planet, the exponential growth of technology and referring to the timeless quote by Martin Luther King (above), we as the Data & Technology department at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) are starting to ask a new question:

‘What is right?’

Recently there have been a lot of bold statements by technology organisations, which we could argue are slightly in competition with each other. However for all other industries who have technology departments, how are we calculating our emissions and are we offsetting? There are no obvious standards as there are for aviation for example. How can we navigate our way through the ‘offsetting Wild West’? Can we really become carbon natural – or even carbon negative?

There are so many questions, but which actions are right?

The Data & Technology team here at the RIBA have started to take action, as well as asking the question. As a department we are currently:

  1. Calculating what our technology carbon footprint is, starting with infrastructure consumption, with the aim of eventually looking at our whole digital, data and technology estate.
  2. Working out what we can reduce (and whether this is possible) or offset (and whether this is advisable).
  3. Setting ourselves realistic targets and a timeline for change.

We not only want to do the right thing, we want to ‘do the right thing, right’ – a challenge posed by our RIBA President, Professor Alan M Jones.

Our question to you, our fellow technology peers and those in technology departments…

How are you taking action?

  • How are you calculating your consumption?
  • What actionable and realistic steps are you taking?
  • Are you aware of a central think tank, committee or government agency setting the agenda? The team at the RIBA are keen to be involved in the broader discussion.
  • Or are you, like us, in the discovery phase too?

We’re looking forward to hearing and learning from you.

Join us

In June, for Digital Leaders Week. We announced at the launch of #DLWeek this week that we’re going to run a cross-industry workshop with public and private partners to discuss just this, and start to work through what standards/common themes we can begin to apply across our department omissions – watch this space for how to get involved!

Originally published here.

Photo: Bloomberg, London by Foster + Partners, upheld for its sustainability credentials & 2018 RIBA Stirling Prize winner. Photo by Nigel Young

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