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How to be both digital and ‘green’ at the same time

September 07, 2021 - 360 views

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How to be both digital and ‘green’ at the same time

Digital pollution poses an alarming environmental threat. Here’s how to use technology to achieve both business and sustainability goals.

If the internet were a country, it would be the seventh largest polluter in the world, by some estimates. While greenhouse gas emissions temporarily dipped during the pandemic, the resulting crisis also accelerated the world’s dependence on online activities, exacerbating digital pollution.

In Southeast Asia alone, 40 million additional people came online in 2020, compared with an average of 20 million per year over the previous five years, and the percent who went online hourly (vs. just several times per day) nearly doubled during the pandemic lockdowns. Even today, this population of intense internet users remains 10 percentage points greater than in pre-COVID times.

While online behaviors (such as sending documents electronically vs. printing them, videoconferencing vs. flying to a client’s office, ordering online vs. driving to the store) are often considered more “green” than the alternative, this notion is far from true. For instance, the data centers that help carry out these digital tasks produce approximately 3.8% of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, every online interaction we make, each click, thumbs-up, or thumbs-down, quietly contributes to climate change.

The rise in digital pollution

In fact, digital technologies now represent 4% of the world’s total carbon emissions, and their energy consumption is increasing by 9% per year. Offsetting the environmental impact of the increased internet usage in 2020 alone, it is estimated, would require a forest twice the size of Portugal, enough water to fill 317,200 Olympic-size swimming pools, and land the size of Los Angeles.

As more products, activities and industries move online — cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens (NFT), the next big thing, etc. — the impact of online experiences will only grow.

For instance, NFTs are usually bought and sold on the Ethereum blockchain platform, requiring thousands of computers that consume as much electricity per year as the entire country of Libya. Although Ethereum recently pledged to become more energy efficient, the power needed to sustain the broader crypto market could still wreak environmental havoc and even raise the Earth’s temperature by two degrees. With this in mind, Elon Musk recently reversed his decision to accept bitcoin payments for Teslas, citing the rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining.

A double-edged sword

While digital technologies can help businesses combat climate change (as we illustrate in our recently published report “Green Rush: The Economic Imperative for Sustainability”), they also pose an alarming environmental threat.

As nearly every company in every industry becomes more IT intensive, organizations need to use digital technologies in a way that both advance their business objectives and sustain the environment. Consumers are already demanding this: 80% of Southeast Asian consumers claim they value sustainability and have made lifestyle changes to become more eco-friendly. Cloud providers have made ambitious commitments to reduce their adverse impact on the environment. Google promises it will operate carbon-free by 2030, while Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft have pledged to use 100% renewable energy to power their data center facilities.

But while a factory chimney or a polluting car is easy to label as unsustainable, it is vastly more difficult to determine the environmental damage inflicted by invisible digital technologies.

Taking action to turn digital ‘green’

Here are six ways businesses can become more digitally sustainable over time.

  • Assess the impact of your digital infrastructure. Begin by measuring your website's carbon footprint by using tools such as the Website Carbon Calculator. For example, Volkswagen Canada opted for a climate-friendly web design to promote its new electric car. Individuals researching the Volkswagen ID4 can choose between the typical website experience and a less data-heavy interface that uses black-and-white images and simply formatted text. According to the automaker, its low-carbon website is 50% cleaner than the standard ID4 page.

    By offering customers flexible options that match their requirements, meanwhile, multi-cloud workload management provider Yellowdog says it can help companies reduce their carbon impact by an average of 52% compared with on-premises solutions.
  • Adopt a green software approach. Software engineers and developers can adopt more environmentally conscious approaches to software development. Goldman Sachs recently signed on to the Green Software Foundation, which was launched by Microsoft and others to accurately measure emissions and construct more sustainable software.

  • Rethink data collection and storage. It’s no secret that most organizations struggle with data overload. It is estimated that a 75% reduction in data would equate to more than a 75% reduction in emissions and energy usage. This involves eliminating redundant, obsolete and trivial data, as well as creating new data policies that define what to collect, how much to collect and for how long to store it. With this approach, businesses can cut storage requirements and costs while consuming less energy.

  • Encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable digital behavior. A recent survey found that 80% of consumers want technologies that help them monitor their carbon footprint. For example, account holders with Islandsbanki (Bank of Iceland) can track their carbon footprint through the bank’s mobile app. Similarly, Italy-based financial services provider Banca Mediolanum launched Flowe to help customers make eco-conscious choices through their purchases and finances.

  • Add digital sustainability to your environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. Consumers appreciate brands that are transparent about their carbon footprint. The city of Milan in Italy has developed a tool that calculates the outcomes of digitization in terms of time, money and emissions saved to provide clear information to residents, departments and politicians.

  • Train your designers, developers and experts. Sustainability principles can now be added to website and application design practices to reinforce environmental thinking. For instance, designers and engineers can provide an option to switch to dark mode or use smaller images to reduce data transfer, page weight and unnecessary page views.

We are fast approaching the tipping point in the digital sphere, and the environmental implications are more urgent than ever. Brands that incorporate sustainability principles into their use of digital technologies will not only reduce planetary harm but will also gain consumer trust and loyalty in a world where climate change is fast becoming both an obstacle and an opportunity to generating new forms of business value.

To learn more about how to balance the priorities of people, planet and profits, read our latest report “Green Rush: The Economic Imperative for Sustainability.”

 

Digital Business & Technology Digital pollution, sustainability, green, ESG

Manish Bahl

Associate Vice President, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, Asia Pacific and the Middle East

Manish Bahl is an Associate Vice President who leads the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work in Asia-Pacific and the...

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