COP28 has reached its historic agreement to transition away from fossil fuels. Whilst that’s positive news, the BCS Green IT specialist group warn that tech has to be used responsibly and sustainably if net-zero is to be reached. Claire Penketh reports.
Technology can be pivotal in achieving net zero through innovation and new technologies. It can also be a double-edged sword, Russell Macdonald, Chief Technologist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and BCS Green IT member: "Is IT a force for good or is it also part of the problem? It's one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. We're all looking to reduce carbon emissions from IT, but that isn't easy because the amount of compute we need at this current time will exponentially increase. You can't escape IT and energy being inextricably linked."
Russell added it remains critical that the IT industry and users of technology continue to take steps to optimise the energy efficiency of data centres, hardware infrastructure, cloud services and software to ensure that the vital work of decarbonising the grid remains achievable, despite increased demand for computing resources, digital services and artificial intelligence.
Alex Bardell MBCS, Chair of the Green IT Specialist Group, said it's not just up to the United Nations or governments to ensure we achieve net zero: "Irrespective of the agreement of the COP in terms of phasing out fossil fuel – it's also up to all of us. It's the companies and the technology they use, too.
"We're the people in the more affluent regions of North America, China and Europe with the disposable income, new tech devices and cars which are the most responsible for climate change. We produce these goods and services and have more computing power than poorer parts of the world.
"So what matters is how we change our behaviour and how computing can help. That's where we're going to see the biggest change."
AI and Data
Computing can help us make sense of the enormous quantities of data in the world, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide the insights that enable us to make more carbon-aware decisions.
Russell said: "We are seeing real examples of this through digital solutions and apps that nudge human behaviour, for instance, to understand our energy consumption and shift our electricity usage to times of day when renewable energy is more plentiful. Or tracking our own carbon footprint and suggesting how to reduce it, making carbon-conscious choices about travel and transport. Even where we buy our food and how we can make more ethical purchasing choices."
He gave additional examples, such as the UK government's investments in the Future of Computing and the National AI Resource, which will significantly accelerate the UK's supercomputing and AI capabilities. He cited Isambard-AI at the University of Bristol, a £225m investment from the government to create the UK's most powerful supercomputer.
The UK government has also announced that the University of Edinburgh is the preferred location for the first phase of the new Exascale supercomputer.
Russell said: “Such large-scale computing resources have the potential to model our progress and ensure that top-down climate commitments are on track and are also reflected by changes in our workplaces, culture, and lifestyle.”
Global approach to saving the planet
Tech can be a positive force for good in understanding climate change and how to mitigate its impacts. It provides the data and innovations to improve energy efficiency and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, catalysing the energy transition.
However, for those of us in the Global North, where technology plays a significant role in all aspects of our lives, we may need to make more substantial changes than those in the Global South, who more acutely feel the impacts of climate change.
On the first day of the COP28 UN summit, a landmark deal was agreed to help the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries pay for the irreversible impacts of climate disaster. Several countries pledged to pay into a startup fund for loss and damage.
These countries also need help with the digital transformation of their economies, said Alex: "They already have a lot of skills, and what we need to do is enhance their skills with some of the things we have and provide access to the heavy lifting.
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"You can see the development of internet networks in Africa has already helped this – so they don't need to build and create a supercomputer, as we are doing. All they need to do is get their data in and do some valuable calculations to help them deal with climate change.
"The critical thing is the connectivity technology can bring, and then it's about providing access to everyone. It's about digital inclusion across the globe - which can be vital in setting up projects dealing with climate change.
"It's about taking the knowledge and skills and providing these to the nations which need adaptation, mitigation and compensation in a form that is useful to their needs."
In summary Alex said the rich nations had a duty to help the poorer nations and create a more equal outcome which might also addressees other global issues related to income disparity.