The world’s quest to achieve the 2050 global net-zero target has rapidly mobilized governments, organizations and societies that are increasingly aware of the role of IT in accelerating this agenda. In the global EY Reimagining Industry Futures Study 2023, the majority (54%) of businesses that participated believe that emerging technologies can play a vital role in accelerating sustainability.
Digital technology is a key enabler for managing information to achieve crucial goals. These include meeting compliance requirements and the reporting needs of key stakeholders as well as driving operational changes within the organization to achieve sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets. The information and communications technology (ICT) sector has the potential to directly and indirectly reduce global carbon emissions by 15% and 35% respectively by 2030.1 However, the ICT sector contributes an estimated 2.1%–3.9% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is possibly higher than emissions from the aviation industry.2
The exponential increase in the utilization of digital technology across every sector globally as a lever to achieve sustainability also comes with the responsibility of not allowing it to become a major contributor of global GHG emissions. Rapid adoption of the latest technologies, such as big data, digital twins, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things, blockchain, 5G and embedded software, could create a rebound effect in the form of high energy consumption from technology utilization. This would delay progress toward achieving the 45% reduction in emissions from the ICT sector by 2030, which is required to be in line with the Paris Agreement.3
The disposal of technology products (e-waste) also contributes to global GHG emissions from the ICT sector. Global production of e-waste was a staggering 53.6 million tons in 2019 and is projected to increase to 74.7 million tons by 2030.4 E-waste poses further environmental risks due to hazardous substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium, which can contaminate soil, water and air. The extraction and mining processes associated with these materials also contribute to deforestation, habitat destruction and soil erosion, emphasizing the urgent need for effective e-waste processing and material reuse.
Efforts must maintain a net positive impact from the ICT sector on the planet and people. Therefore, the need for innovation in green IT has now become crucial.
Green IT refers to IT products and services that enable organizations to reduce environmental impact, including the impact of IT energy consumption. This is a notable issue that organizations need to address. For example, data centers and data transmission networks were responsible for nearly 1% of energy-related GHG emissions in 2020.5
The implementation of green IT across all sectors not only can drive sustainability but also improve productivity, reduce operational costs, and facilitate compliance with regulatory requirements and standards. Organizations that implement green IT can gain a competitive advantage by building trust with key stakeholders, including customers, investors and partners.
An important green IT practice is green software, which refers to the implementation of low-carbon principles in the software development and utilization lifecycle. While software may not be a direct carbon emitter, it is a medium that shapes how technology operates and consumes energy. For example, an AI model trained to classify different species of iris flowers achieved an accuracy of 96.17% with only 964 joules of energy.6 However, the next 1.74-percentage point increase in accuracy required 2,815 joules of energy, about 192% more than that needed in the first stage. This jumped to nearly 400% for the last 0.08-percentage point increase in accuracy.