By Daniel Ward-Murphy, Head of Brand, Circular Computing
The climate change conundrum is potentially the biggest challenge humanity has faced. It is no longer feasible, or ethical, to mentally separate the decisions governments and companies make that impact the world we hand down to our future generations.
Latest research on our progress
So how are we doing in this battle? The latest research shows that while CO2 emissions have decreased in 64 countries, they increased in 150 countries.
Researchers at the University of East Anglia, Stanford University and the Global Carbon Project recently showed that globally, emissions grew by 240 million tons of CO2 per year during 2016-2019 compared to 2011-2015.
Even in the 64 nations where emissions fell between 2016 and 2019, the average combined decrease was just 160 million metric tons of CO2 per year. At a global level, emissions reductions need to be approximately 10 times that amount to hold global warming well below 2°C relative to preindustrial levels, the ambition of the Paris Agreement.
It’s a pretty bleak outlook. Even our best falls way, way short of where it needs to be.
So what do we need to do to get there?
When we look at the climate challenge ahead of us, our only hope may be that all of these three things fall into place:
- Large emission contributor governments introduce real difference-making legislation
- Education and awareness significantly increases on the subject of ‘what does harm?’ to the point where is changes consumer behaviour
- We continue to create and adopt the technological advances that will enable seismic savings
It will take an effort from governments, businesses and consumers.
We need to support businesses but show the reality
Attitudinally, I think it’s important that as a business community we applaud and celebrate all the positive sustainability steps that companies take. Unequivocally.
Sometimes the interrogation of ‘exactly how much good are you doing?’ or ‘it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to…’ can be a negative barrier to progress. However, alongside this, it is important that we hold to account claims and don’t just amplify the sustainability achievements of the top 5% of companies, thus giving the impression that we are further forward in this challenge. We are not.
The truth is that most companies are struggling to be the company they need to be when it comes to sustainability.
A new supplier and buyer relationship
Scope 1 emissions and Scope 2 emissions reporting have been tackled by many but even the most experienced sustainability departments struggle with accurately documenting their scope 3 emissions, even before implementing the revolutionary strategies to significantly improve the results. It’s complicated – there are a lot of variables and supplier information goes from great to very patchy.
One of the requirements of progress will be a strengthening of the working relationship between companies and suppliers to include provision of accurate sourcing and sustainability information. Perhaps in the future, beyond cost and product, this will have more of a bearing on the company choice of which suppliers to use. An alteration in this dynamic could certainly be a great help towards achieving our global goals.
Education of the problem
We all know the high-level climate problem, but we aren’t educated about the sum of the parts that add up to the whole. The need for this ‘education’ part above is illustrated perfectly within the area of IT and sustainability. When we communicate that it takes on average 190,000 litres of water to make one laptop, most IT or procurement personnel are shocked. As they are with the information that it creates on average 316 kg of CO2 emissions and 1,200kgs of earth needs to be dug out the ground. The ‘shocked’ people are better informed than most, so you have to question whether as a world community we are communicating these stories as much as we should be. To be motivated towards a solution you must first understand the problem.
Changing ingrained habits
Within the IT and electronics world, there are also major existing habitual challenges to overcome. The behaviour to upgrade regularly is more about getting newer, better, faster than it is about the product needing replacement. It’s kind of ingrained to many individuals now. In the corporate IT world, getting old computers out and new computers in every three years is a common theme that’s been going for years, but there needs to be some sort of jolt to change behaviour.
The principle behind Moore’s Law simply doesn’t apply any more. It was a principle made famous by Intel founder Gordon Moore. In 1965, Moore used the pace of development in chip technology to define a model for technological advancement which saw the performance capacity for computing chips double, year on year. While the industry proved Moore right for many years, experts now say that technology has reached an inevitable plateau. Some claim the operating speed of high-end chips has been plateauing since the mid-2000s. These days computers are fast enough, powerful enough and light enough to do what 99% of the workforce need from it.
Despite this plateau, organisations are still buying laptops in those same short cycles. With a growing e-waste problem – some 160,000 laptops are thrown away in the EU alone – it is clear that something needs to be done. But what?
Many of those laptops that have been discarded are in relatively good condition, and we know that from a performance perspective they’re perfectly serviceable. As such there’s a growing interest in taking these machines that would otherwise go unused and returning them to a condition where they can be used again by businesses. Even within this part of the market, there are exciting new categories emerging. Remanufactured laptops, for example, take devices through a rigorous process to clean the machine, replace parts, and run a thorough quality check to ensure they are consistent, reliable and perform well enough for an enterprise-grade machine.
Because these remanufactured units use lots of the original materials and parts, they are not only significantly cheaper than brand new devices, they are also much more sustainable – as the emissions generated, and water and resources used in the manufacturing process are significantly reduced. As such, buying sustainable, remanufactured laptops over brand new machines can significantly reduce Scope 3 emissions.
The problem of silos in big business
From our own experience, the larger the company or organisation, the more departments get involved in the sustainability conversation, and the more chances a ‘switch’ to a more sustainable option will get vetoed. It’s great if a company has a Head of Sustainability or CSR, even better if they wield genuine power, but that means at least three departments will be involved in the journey – sustainability, procurement, IT. It’s one more than the procurement journey for a non-sustainable solution and that sadly, has an impact.
In a larger company, these departments may not speak to each other much and do not have a strong working relationship, so there are so many barriers to overcome.
The varied goals of CSR, ESG and Sustainability departments
Whether the department or role is called Sustainability, ESG or CSR, there is a duty to look after people as well as the environment. There are two important broad focuses and they both need attention.
If you acknowledge that sustainability has not always been a core focus for companies previously and that many departments are relatively new, then it is logical that there are so many large projects that could be focussed on. This offers some explanation as to why what is achieved is still the tip of the iceberg.
The millennials are our hope
For all this group (and the term) is maligned, millennials are the generation that hold companies to a higher account when it comes to their practices. A U.S. Cone Communications Millennial Employee Study found that 64% of Millennials won’t take a job if their employee doesn’t have a strong CSR policy, and 83% would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues (vs. 70% U.S. average). By 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce and of course be a growing percentage of shareholders. This will undoubtedly catalyse greater action on sustainability.
While recent developments have given cause for a level of optimism, there is still a long, long journey ahead. It seems reasonable to assume that in a money driven world, the climate change challenge being more intrinsically linked with company profit may provide the spark required to move the needle in a more meaningful way.
One way businesses can really make a difference is identifying those areas where sustainability benefits and cost savings are not mutually exclusive and seize those opportunities – and one of the most attractive areas of overlap at the moment can be found in the IT department.