Following Jisc's recent exploring digital carbon emissions report, how can FE and HE institutions reduce their digital carbon footprint?
When we think of how to tackle global warming, what readily springs to mind is the likes of reducing vehicle emissions and waste, and saving energy. The environmental impact of digital technology is less often considered.
The enforced shift to remote working and studying during the pandemic increased both the use of technology and the resulting volume of CO2 it produces. As the education sector continues its digital transformation, its carbon load will climb exponentially.
So now, as we return to a sense of normality, it’s time to analyse how to use tech more sustainably; not least because students demand it.
Today’s students actively scrutinise the green credentials of organisations they patronise. From coffee shops to gyms and e-brands to employers; those that demonstrate efforts to reduce their environmental impact could have an edge over the competition. This also applies to where they study. According to the latest National Union of Students (NUS) sustainability skills survey, around 80 per cent of students polled want their institutions to be doing more on sustainability.
As such, college and university leaders must think strategically about how to reach carbon net zero. To support this aim, Jisc commissioned a report, exploring digital carbon footprints (pdf) by technology analyst Scott Stonham, which demonstrates how to measure digital carbon emissions and identify strategic and day-to-day actions that can lead to meaningful change.
Some institutions have already set out plans for achieving net zero, but most are at an early stage in this essential journey. To help steer leaders, our report covers several key topics.
Measuring and communicating
Understanding and measuring carbon output is the first step.
It is estimated that if the internet were a nation, it would be the fourth largest CO2e (carbon dioxide emitter) on the planet, behind the USA, China and India, and ahead of Russia.
For those institutions using cloud technology (data stored off campus and hosted by an internet site) when choosing your supplier, it is worth investigating providers’ climate credentials and their willingness to collaborate on reducing emissions. Many cloud operators now include data and emissions measuring tools as part of the packages they provide.
Carbon calculator apps and real-time energy consumption and carbon emission dashboards are useful tools for measuring the energy used on premises and how that translates into CO2 emissions.
Clearly communicating key policies – including highlighting best-practice – can help lower carbon footprints by encouraging simple changes, such as switching off cameras during video calls and being mindful of how much data is retained and where it is stored.
Tangible data on energy use can help leaders make informed choices when purchasing equipment, as well as on how they use it.
Demonstrating a conscious choice to work with sustainable suppliers and setting them clear environmental and sustainability goals will help climate-conscious colleges and universities stand out from the crowd.
Challenging suppliers by communicating organisational green goals will encourage them to make sustainability a priority during their research, design, manufacture, and distribution processes.
Education providers are increasingly moving systems to the cloud. However, there will always be a need for some form of physically present IT equipment, such as servers and data centres, printers, monitors and building control systems.
IT managers can improve carbon emissions from campus data centres with little to no investment by optimising airflow and ensuring equipment is cooled. AI (artificial intelligence) can assist with this by measuring temperatures in real time, rather than placing air conditioning units on a static setting. By taking into consideration external weather conditions, current IT equipment loads and temperatures and historical performance, AI can finely manage cooling parameters, saving money, preventing excessive carbon emissions from energy waste and potentially prolonging the lifetime of equipment.
On a day-to-day basis, students and staff should be encouraged to turn off equipment rather than relying on standby or sleep mode. Devices still use power when on standby, with even the most energy efficient laptops producing around 7.4 kg CO2 per year – the equivalent of charging a smartphone almost 900 times.
Working with tech providers to prolong the lifecycle of equipment through repairing and remodelling will also help to reduce CO2 emissions. Around 80% of IT’s carbon footprint can be attributed to the manufacturing and distribution of the equipment itself rather than daily usage, meaning cuts can be made by keeping devices longer and buying fewer items.
Although it is easy to think the cloud just exists somewhere above us, the information saved in it is maintained by large-scale data centres that are estimated to account for 1-1.5% of global energy consumption.
Just 6 per cent of cloud data is used regularly, while around 90 per cent of stored data is never accessed.
The implementation of a data retention policy, which stipulates deleting saved data after a certain time, unless it is considered business critical, is an effective way of keeping the number of saved documents to a minimum.
Remote working can help improve access to learning. However, the move to more remote work and study has increased the demand for devices, other technology and use of the internet.
There are several top-level decisions leaders can make to ensure that equipment and systems are used in a low-carbon-manner.
When choosing a video conferencing tool, consider the number of megabytes of data used each second for a call: the lower the megabytes, the lower the carbon emissions.
Opting for standard definition video during calls, as opposed to high definition, can also decrease the amount of data used, leading to savings in carbon emissions. Likewise, switching off video and switching to audio only, is a greener option.
Our report proposes a number of ways those who oversee technology in education can make a positive impact on their digital carbon footprint, and it is heartening to see that the sector is keen to get involved.
Last week Jisc hosted a roundtable event with several FE and HE professionals to start a conversation on the move towards net zero. The majority of attendees said they would like to hear more from those in the sector who are getting it right and would welcome the opportunity to share knowledge.
Each institution is different and there are no hard-and-fast rules when balancing climate change goals with the need for increased use of technology. However, better collaboration across the sector would be a step in the right direction.