Using cross-campus expertise to reduce the impact of technology on climate change

Fiona Goodwin

Sustainability and caring for the environment are becoming top agenda items for universities and colleges alike, although the approach to tackling these challenges varies across the sector.

Students study in a computer room.

Some universities have large teams of 20 or 30 with a broad brief, while at colleges, which are typically smaller, the responsibility is often tagged on to someone's wider portfolio, for example corporate social responsibility. 

Whatever the available resource, tackling climate change is no longer tokenistic or a ‘nice to have’, but a strategic priority. 

What’s pushing the rush to net zero in education? 

There are a couple of different drivers for this. The first is students. The climate crisis is very much on their radar and they're demanding action from organisations with which they engage. So, there's a real reputational risk for any university or college that isn’t seen to be taking action to reduce its carbon footprint.  

The environment itself is the second driver. Nature is becoming more extreme. Through the recent heatwaves, we’ve become more aware of the value of air conditioning, but also of the cost of cooling. It reminds us that technology is an increasingly large contributor to carbon emissions. 

Server rooms generate vast amounts of heat and cooling systems will need to work harder as our climate warms, pushing up cost and CO2 emissions. But is there a better way? How can that heat be diverted and used to warm another area of the campus?  

Flooding is another increasing threat and insurance claims due to water damage have gone up hugely in recent years. Basements are often used as server rooms because they tend to be cool, but below-ground spaces are prone to flooding.  

Technology and carbon emissions 

As educational institutions become increasingly reliant on technology, they need a resilient IT estate that can deal with the impact of a changing climate. 

They must be mindful though, that increasing use of digital technology causes an exponential increase in carbon emissions.  

And cloud computing is not the ‘green’ solution some believe it to be. Minimising its emissions requires a robust procurement process to assess suppliers’ practices, but also behavior change from users. Most people view the cloud as a place to store limitless data. Few people ever delete anything from the cloud, even if it’s never used, and that has a huge carbon impact.   

People and organisations need to consider the consequences of their online presence and be aware that small changes in behaviour can make a big difference

We all tend to keep emails, complete with attachments, and social media videos and streaming are also CO2 contributors.  

I’m not saying we should stop doing all of that, but people and organisations need to consider the consequences of their online presence and be aware that small changes in behaviour can make a big difference. 

At an institutional level, raising awareness is key. Something as simple as prompting staff to clear out emails and cloud data every now and then would be a good thing. There’s also a cost saving to reducing data storage, of course. 

Procurement and IT teams can also make a difference to a provider’s carbon footprint and ethics by making careful choices when buying or disposing of equipment. For example, institutions can join Electronics Watch to protect workers in the industry and promote sustainable procurement practices.    

Can the supplier prove good sustainability practices in the manufacturing process? Can devices be refurbished and reused, extending their life to the max? How much of the product is being recycled? Can older equipment be donated to students to help bridge the digital poverty divide? 

Investing versus saving 

Particularly for colleges, finding money to invest in sustainability is challenging. This is where a long-term approach pays off. The risk of doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions is that the cost of action further down the line is likely to be much more. There’s a reputational risk too. 

The good thing is that many simple actions to limit CO2 emissions from technology, such as reducing data storage, switching off equipment rather than leaving it on standby and using audio rather than video calls, are quick, cheap and save money.  

Some options do have a bigger cost but still save money in the long run. For instance, installing solar panels, or using sensors to monitor room or building occupation and automate heating, cooling and lighting accordingly. 

A strategic, cross-campus approach 

Thankfully, I think senior leaders in education are realising investment in sustainability makes financial, ethical and reputational sense. To make the most of the opportunity, they must make strategic decisions and drive change by securing buy-in across the organisation.  

This means breaking down silos and collaborating across the campus, bringing together procurement teams, estate and IT managers and students to share knowledge and ideas.  

Let’s not forget the academics: the way institutions teach and what is taught are important too. Is sustainable computing part of the curriculum? Are there ways to minimise data processing and storage within the curriculum? Is it possible to reduce downloads without impacting learning? 

For our collective effort to make the most impact on climate change, we must try to bring together the expertise in the sector

Because averting climate change is something that matters to us all, people are generally engaged and want to help, so it shouldn’t be an uphill struggle, but it does require strong leadership.   

For our collective effort to make the most impact on climate change, we must try to bring together the expertise in the sector. There are pockets of good practice, but it’s now time to collate and share them with the sector. I hope that, between EAUC, Jisc and others, we can start to do that.  

Further information 

For advice and tips on reducing environmental impact, read Jisc’s report, Exploring digital carbon footprints

About the author

Fiona Goodwin
Interim CEO, Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC)