Big drops in carbon emissions are likely to be one result of the coronavirus crisis, but what contribution is the digital sector making to global warming – and how can communicators help make it more sustainable?

Tempting as it may be to imagine it, digital communications are not environmentally benign. There’s a CO2 price-tag each time you send an email, post a Tweet, download or stream a video, or develop a new website.

In fact, the global data centres that power the internet require enormous amounts of energy to run, producing emissions equivalent to the airline industry in 2019. And traffic is growing all the time: ‘Big Data’ means not just exciting new AI-driven technologies and services, it also entails even more (and more powerful) data centres – and thus more emissions of greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, there are steps every company can take right now to improve their impact on the environment. Spoon UK partner Digital Detox, for example, has recently been working with Vodafone to reduce the mobile communications giant’s carbon footprint.

Digital Detox has examined everything from the electricity used by the cloud-computing services Vodafone procures, to the energy efficiency of the computer code it develops. Another aim of the project has been to ensure that sustainability is factored into Vodafone’s internal metrics (while desirable from a marketing perspective, long web page dwell times aren’t necessarily great for the environment, for instance).

‘Digital waste’ – and an internal comms challenge

Part of the strategy is for every single Vodafone employee to be aware of their carbon footprint and how to reduce ‘digital waste’. That meant an internal communications challenge. “We wanted to show the impact that digital can have on sustainability and embed that in the company’s CSR policy,” explains Donovan Justice, chief executive and founder, Digital Detox. “Cultural change and raising awareness of digital’s role is very important.”

As the new initiative was introduced, the engagement of Vodafone teams, and their motivation to make a difference, turned out to be extremely high. Digital Detox’s work has become an important part of the company’s RedLovesGreen environmental engagement and awareness campaign, explains Andrew Ferguson, head of digital services, Vodafone. “Communication was important – as people started to find out what we were doing, it really snowballed.”

In just four weeks, the first Vodafone/Digital Detox project saved 79 tonnes of carbon emissions – equivalent to the greenhouse gases generated by charging more than 10 million smartphones – and the business $1 million. Five follow-up projects are currently taking place, so there’s scope for even greater cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases at Vodafone, which is also targeting areas such as cutting Scope 3 carbon emissions as part of its commitment to sustainability.

The coronavirus crisis, carbon emissions and the ‘four Cs’

It’s thought the coronavirus pandemic will create deep cuts in global carbon dioxide emissions this year because of reductions in economic activity and travel across the world. But commentators believe we would need another decade of cuts at a similar level to reach our targets for limiting global temperature rises. Globally, CO2 emissions rose in 2018 and 2019, despite all the efforts of governments, businesses and society to make cuts.

So, if you want to help combat climate change, it may be time to reduce your digital communications footprint. Want to make a start? Donovan Justice recommends considering the ‘four Cs’:

Customer

Your customers should be encouraged to use online services, and when they do, the technology must be sustainable. When measuring online performance, it’s also important that businesses consider sustainability as a KPI; changing KPI structure can reduce digital pollution.

Cloud

Automation, optimisation and sustainable practices are key to cloud-based sustainability. More consideration of procurement and budgeting is vital, as is reviewing existing tools, systems and processes to find opportunities to make them greener.

Code

There’s a need to ‘lighten the load’ on code. Best practice and a more sustainable approach can reduce the digital footprint of a customer’s code. This may involve optimising web page performance, weight, speed and overall efficiency too.

Culture

A few key actions can be implemented to help increase environmental awareness within a company culture. “We want to embed climate consciousness into the DNA of every employee,” says Justice. “That starts with change at the top and more visibility of policies around climate change.”

Interested in thinking about how to make your digital communications infrastructure greener? Find out more about how Spoon and Digital Detox can help you change your organisation from the inside.  Contact us for an informal chat.

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