Existing IT systems are enabling company activities that are unsustainable and damaging to the environment. ‘When should we as IT professionals stop maintaining them?’ ask Ian Brooks MBCS, Minna Laurell Thorslund, Aksel Biørn-Hansen and Elena Somova.
Other articles in the December 2021 issue of ITNOW will tell us about the progress that is being made in reducing the environmental impact of IT (‘Green IT’) and applying IT to improve sustainability (#Tech4Good). We argue that we should also be having the uncomfortable conversation about what IT we should stop building or maintaining because of the damage to sustainability that it enables (#Tech4Bad).
We use the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) definition of sustainability: to ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
This article arose from a discussion during the ICT for Sustainability summer school 2021, where we considered some of the ethical and pragmatic approaches to decide when to say no to maintaining or building IT systems. Plenty has been written about ethics and implementation of IT in other contentious industries such as armaments, border enforcement and surveillance.
However, to date we have not seen such extensive discussion about IT in fossil fuel industries. Burning fossil fuels is the main source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which contribute to climate change. As stated by the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the climate and it urgently calls for action to limit human-induced climate change. Globally, we must reach net zero emissions by 2050, which means we need to stop burning fossil fuels in almost all circumstances.
What, then, are the implications for us as IT professionals and the work we choose to do, when it is part of a harmful industry coming to the end of its life? When do we need to start saying no?
Pragmatics: when it doesn’t make sense
We can take a pragmatic view that the fossil fuel industry is coming to an end and therefore IT professionals should plan to move to other industries with a long-term future. The fossil fuel industry is familiar with the risk of ‘stranded assets’, which are fossil fuel reserves that become worthless because the carbon can no longer be burned. There is no reason why IT professionals should suffer from stranded careers in an industry without a future - we have a choice. The question is, how soon do we need to make that choice?
For those of us working in IT supporting fossil fuel exploration, the choice is urgent. A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that the exploration and development of new oil and gas fields must stop in 2021 to meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. This implies that very soon, there will be no demand for IT professionals to support or develop software used in fossil fuel exploration.
For those working in fossil fuel production, refining and sales, this decline will take place over a few decades. In the UK, no new fossil fuel cars and vans will be sold from 2030. The demand for petrol and diesel will drop as the UK fleet moves to electric or hydrogen energy.
By 2050, we should expect the transport fossil fuel industry to come to an end. This means that in the next decade or two, IT professionals working in this industry will have to leave it and look for new employment in other sectors.
So, on this purely pragmatic basis, this is not a career we would recommend to students and established IT professionals will want to consider a sector change.
Ethics: when it’s not right
It is not illegal to produce or supply fossil fuels and current international negotiations focus more on reducing the demand for fossil fuels rather than legislating against production and supply. As professionals, however, we are called to act to a higher standard than mere compliance with the law and should consider the ethical impact of our actions.
As BCS members, we have signed up to the BCS Code of Conduct, committing to work in the public interest, with ‘due regard for public health, privacy, security and wellbeing of others and the environment,’ and ‘for the legitimate rights of Third Parties.’
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The global scientific health community, including the British Medical Journal, recently communicated that the risks to human health of global temperature increases above 1.5 degrees Celsius are now ‘well established.’ As individual professionals, we should reflect on the ethical guidance of the Code when making decisions about the work we do.
As citizens of a member state of the United Nations (UN), we suggest that the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are also worth considering to guide the career decision making of IT professionals.
If the industry in which we work hinders achievement of the SDGs, which globally represent ‘the world we want’ by 2030, then we may want to plan a change.
The fossil fuel industry directly hinders the achievement of goals related to Climate Action (SDG13) and Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG7). It also has profound negative impacts on targets in many of the other goals, such as Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG3) and Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG11). By choosing to apply our professional skills in the fossil fuel industry, we are not acting in accordance with this international agreement.
We encourage all professionals, including those in IT, to think about how our careers might be used to support the ethical and legal frameworks under which we operate. The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets can be used in our profession in many different ways, including as requirements in systems engineering and enabling us to clearly communicate the impact of our #Tech4Good.
Praxis: how to say ‘no’
As IT professionals, we can have significant influence when we act together. In 2019, tech workers from Amazon, Google and Microsoft joined the global climate strike. Since then, Amazon and other IT businesses have improved their commitments on climate action. The broader #TechWontBuildIt movement has shown the power of IT professionals taking a stand on other ethical issues.
But it is hard, both as individuals and as professionals, to make the decision to stop participating in an existing, currently legal activity.
All of us have experienced short-term benefits from using fossil fuels, which have also transformed personal mobility and production in many sectors. Many of us have previously worked for the fossil fuel industry, before becoming fully aware of the extent of the climate crisis. And every industry has its own internal story to justify its continuing existence.
Yet, we need to start saying no to #Tech4Bad. No to working in or for the fossil fuel industry, and no to building the systems that support it, for the sake of our careers and our societal commitments. And we need to press our employers to do better and to exit fossil fuel industries.
If this speaks to you, here are some concrete actions you can take:
- Learn more about how fossil fuels underpin the climate crisis.
- Find others in your company who are concerned and get organised.
- Question company decisions that support fossil fuel companies.
- Show support to others who are speaking up and saying no.
- Communicate your position to inspire others to take action.
Changing jobs need not be difficult, as many core IT skills are eminently transferable across sectors. Historically, governments have a poor track record in retraining workers from declining industries.
For those wanting to leave the fossil fuel industry, BCS should take a lead to ensure no IT professional is left in a stranded career. Those of us who currently work in the fossil fuel industry will also benefit from talking with IT professionals working in more sustainable sectors.
Local BCS branches could play a role in enabling this discussion. The BCS Personal Development Plan tool offers a structured way to develop a path to other sectors.
BCS should ensure that accredited IT education providers are explicitly discussing the implications of climate change for students and their career choices.
BCS members are professionals with a duty to the ‘wellbeing of others and the environment’.
Whether we use a pragmatic lens recognising that the fossil fuel industry is coming to an end, or an ethical lens of regard for public health, there is no long-term future for IT professionals to continue working in the fossil fuel industry.
IT is a powerful lever for sustainability. We can choose to stop using our skills in ways that undermine sustainability and focus our energies on delivering good.