As COP27 takes place in Egypt, Alex Bardell, chair of the BCS Green Specialist Group, explores the technical, personal and professional challenges NetZero will present for IT workers.

COP27 is upon us, but don’t expect to see any big new agreements being made. That’s because it’s a different kind of event and its objectives reflect that.

To understand why, we need to go back to COP26. Held in Glasgow, last year’s climate conference focused on ratifying the Paris agreement. Specifically, this meant:

  • Securing a global agreement on NetZero by 2050
  • Protecting communities and habitats affected by climate change 
  • Working together to deliver mobile finances

In summary, COP26 focused on ‘what’ we need to do, COP27 is all about ‘how’ we’ll do it. How are we going to deliver against the agreements signed during last year’s mammoth negotiation sessions?

What does COP27 mean for IT?

So, what do the decisions being made over in Egypt mean for all the IT workers and technologists reading this article?

Ultimately, there are two options. Firstly, we could do nothing and accept that stopping a 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures is unattainable, as is preventing a 1.7 degree increase… The same could be true for staving off two and three degree increases too. In short, we could bury our heads in the sand and hope that climate change is not real. We could believe everything will be just fine.

Secondly, alternatively – and more realistically - we could accept, in a way, that the damage is done and that what we must now focus on is minimising climate change’s inevitable impact. The juggernaut of change is going to be hurtling towards us and we must get ready.

What should the computer industry expect?

Every aspect of our lives creates carbon and, as such, contributes to global warming. So, it should come as no surprise that all fields of the computer industry need to make changes. The relentless drive for innovation powered by faster computers with bigger storage and more memory, sets an unsustainable behaviour pattern.

Developers, back in the 70s, ran banking systems on a few megabytes of memory and processors whose speeds were, by today’s standards, glacial. Back then, compute were scarce and programmers were frugal.

Today frugality – or efficiency – are not a consideration. Today’s systems boast gigabytes of memory and multicore processes running at many gigahertz. And we know that tomorrow’s hardware will be faster yet.

So, why squeeze the maximum from every clock cycle and write code which occupies the minimum memory footprint?

But, this must change. Code’s ultimate energy footprint needs to be a consideration. And this isn’t a new idea. Organisations like the Green Software Foundation promote awareness and insight into how we can built software which emits fewer greenhouse gasses.

The foundation’s call to action is clear. We should engineer software that:

  • Demands fewer physical resources
  • Draws less energy
  • Uses energy more intelligently

For developers, there is a need to rethink the way that we create code. We must accept that sustainability is a priority. Use cases should include sustainability within the non-functional requirements.

And when software testers are working, we could include energy usage in their activities.

The devil is in the data

Data is another huge carbon emitter. As we moved from structured to unstructured data; from data warehouses to data lakes, the way we use information consumes vast compute capabilities.

Sifting through unstructured data carries a carbon footprint. This means, data specialists should consider the above three points when making choices around search techniques and algorithms.

We’ve looked at just compute and data here but, our industry is so much bigger and our products so much more complex. And, as a result, we have so many more questions that need answering. How, for example, can we make our data centres more energy efficient? How can we extend the use of our computer equipment? How do we embed ‘reuse, repurpose and recycle’ as a philosophy across our organisations?

Sustainable practice can reach across many of our industry’s aspects and activities. As practitioners, reducing resource usage needs to become a matter of policy, procedure and process.

Delivering on COP27’s goals is a call to action for the technology industry. The action that’s needed is huge and its complex.

Decarbonisation costs

The sad fact is, we have been free-riding on the true cost of carbon and now we are deeply in carbon debt. This means that, today, people are feeling the effect of historic carbon emissions. For example, around a third of Pakistan is now underwater. But, the average Pakistani citizen has a tiny carbon footprint. By comparison people in developed nations have, and continue to generate, huge amounts of carbon as they go about their lives.

The adaptation cost – the financial cost of change – needs to be distributed across the globe. We talk about results-based climate finance: money raised to support regions affected. Many decarbonisation projects call on technology to deliver funding and maintain accountability. Where finance systems are underdeveloped, banking apps and reporting apps are needed to manage the projects and deliver the finances to local economies. These solutions are, of course, underpinned by technology.

To the future

The cost of decarbonisation is going to be high and the journey disruptive. But, we should see this as an evolving opportunity.

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Digitalisation has a role to play in the journey. US President, Joe Biden observed that every electric car contains thousands of microchips. These are all controlled by software – a product, as we’ve already discussed, which can be made to function much more efficiently.

Elsewhere, computers are incredibly important when it comes to predicting the weather. Super computers underpin these predictions and, the computers that are employed in this endeavour, often top super computing’s performance charts. Their work is, of course, necessary as they provide risk information and warn of impending extreme weather events. But, their work – all that computing power – consumes huge amounts of electricity. As such, we need to make strides towards generating more renewable energy.

The jobs of the future

There is no one single silver bullet which will end climate change. Rather, we need a series of steps in a journey.

BCS can – and is – playing a central part in making these steps happen. For example, The CEEDA (Certified Energy Efficient Datacentre Award) is the leading Data Centre Certification. It was born out of the BCS Data Centre specialist group. Similarly, our members have been contributing to The EU Code of conduct for Data Centres.

Delivering on COP27’s goals is a huge challenge and will demand a huge amount of change. This is true of all industries, but technology can help and is going to play a part in this journey.

We should expect to see new green job roles appearing too. These roles require training and skills. Just as the role of energy efficiency data centre assessor, grew out of CEEDA, so new sustainability skills will be required.

Other changes will create new jobs too. For example, greenhouse gas emissions are categorised in three ‘Scopes’, as defined by the widely used Greenhouse Gas Protocol. The account tool has three Scopes:

  1. Direct, owned and controlled emissions
  2. Indirect emissions produced by generating electricity, heating and cooling
  3. All emissions in a value chain

Firms aiming for the top level – Scope 3 – face the challenge of measuring all the emissions, both direct and indirect, generated by their technology footprint. Achieving this level of reporting will require new jobs and skills.

As we look at the challenges associated with achieving NetZero, it becomes apparent that there is an opportunity to create new jobs from the apprentice level right up to leadership. These new jobs will focus on servicing carbon free systems and transitioning to NetZero.

Our personal and professional future

COP27 is a call to action. Technology and digital have a role to play in this journey. BCS members need to think about how their own community will adapt and even thrive in a carbon free world.

Adaptation must be at the forefront of members’ thoughts. We have to expect change and be able to adapt to protect both our own careers and the future of our environment.

No one can be a passenger on this journey.