Over a decade ago, Greenpeace asked how dirty is your data? The question for all tech companies today is how to remain competitive and innovative yet have high levels of sustainability, as tech businesses are often cited for poor environmental credentials. However, with an environmental crisis that continues, will we – as we have often done – rely on technology to resolve the environmental issues we are currently grappling with?

For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is actively working to identify technologies that could deliver solutions to the most pressing environmental issues. “Various private and public sector actors are harnessing data and digital technologies to accelerate global environmental action and fundamentally disrupt business as usual,” said David Jensen, coordinator of UNEP’s digital transformation task force. “These partnerships warrant the attention of the international community as they can contribute to systemic change at an unprecedented speed and scale,” he added.

More data about the impact our technological society is having on the environment is critical to gather. GEMS Air (Global Environment Monitoring System for Air) is a tool that tracks the state of the environment in real time, delivering the insights need to innovate yet protect the environment. Using this technology, IQAir has the largest air pollution monitoring network in the world.

Water is also becoming a limited resource. Freshwater Ecosystem Explorer is the result of a joint partnership between UNEP, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Google Earth Engine. And UNEP is also a supporter of United Nations Biodiversity Lab 2.0, that tracks the effects of climate change on the natural environment.

Speaking to Silicon UK, Steve Haskew, Head of Sustainability and Social Leadership at Circular Computing says: “The UK government has been centre-stage of unilateral conversations around sustainability for years but failed to impress at the recent COP28 and has blown hot and cold on domestic policy and investment ever since. The Climate Change Committee’s findings are unequivocal; we must take our national commitments seriously, and those in a position of power must use their influence to help businesses play their part in tackling the climate crisis.

Steve Haskew, Head of Sustainability & Social Leadership, Circular Computing.

“Take the circular economy; the UK is set to be the world’s largest e-waste contributor by 2024, and much of this was entirely avoidable. At Circular Computing, we help forward-thinking businesses to make clear and obvious changes that can cut costs and help to meet their Net Zero ambitions, such as using remanufactured laptops instead of always buying new. These measures will help, but it’s hard to see the UK achieving its climate goals without a clearer mandate from every corner of society.”

Clearly there will be technological component to any of the solutions that are used to combat climate change. “I don’t think any problem is unsolvable, per se, by technology, but I do think it’s foolish to believe that some miraculous technological device will eventually be invented and solve everything,” says Robin Saluoks, CEO and co-founder eAgronom. “Fighting climate change is not going to happen with a push of a magic button. It’s going to require a combination of really advanced technology, global policy change, a whole lot of manpower, and the utilisation of techniques that people have used for centuries to live and farm in particular regions. This is a global, multi-faceted problem. Its solution will be too.”

The road to Net Zero

Businesses understand that they are now held to account by their customers about their environmental credentials. Indeed, research from Digital Space reveals:

  • Eight out of ten organisations have either reduced their carbon footprint already or have defined plans to do so. These organisations expect IT to be a part of this.

  • 5% of organisations believe regulation or an industry code of conduct is pushing them to become more sustainable, with 53.6% revealing Board/Employee support of sustainability as the driving force, 45.4% customer expectations and 19.7% marketing/branding.

  • Two-thirds of respondents see sustainability as increasing business growth and profit.

  • 60% of respondents report a lack of immediacy regarding the impact on their IT usage, given that over 80% reported either full remote working or a hybrid working arrangement.

Managing Director of Cloud, Tim Lancaster, commented: “While our sustainability report has shown that IT professionals want to be more sustainable and believe that IT can reduce carbon emissions, it has also demonstrated some reluctance to take sustainable action.

“Despite recognising the importance of technology in achieving company-wide sustainable targets, IT professionals have been deterred by associated costs with only 7% revealing that cost was not an important factor. Our advice here would be to look at the long-term savings and goals. When considering pay-as-you go tariffs, re-use and employee productivity, especially from cloud technologies, organisations will benefit from cost savings as well as increased sustainability.”

Understanding the impact that the technologies we create have on the environment and creating new technologies that help us tackle the environment crisis we find ourselves in critical explains Joseph Tabita, Senior Vice President, Head of Energy and Commodities International at digital transformation company, Publicis Sapient:

Joseph Tabita, Senior Vice President, Head of Energy and Commodities International at digital transformation company, Publicis Sapient

“Advancement does not always have a negative environmental impact. For example, technological advancement allowed us to exit the steam age. Imagine if we had maxed out our technology at coal but the population had risen to the current eight billion. Earth’s atmosphere would now resemble that of Venus. However, it is also true that if we were hunter gatherers, living in caves then the carbon levels would not be where they are now. The latter scenario is not a solution. In the first scenario technology was the solution. My positive perspective is that we are very good at solving the problems we create once we have realised there is a problem. We have taken the first step of realising there is a problem and are beginning to mobilise behind it (CFC’s is a great example).”

Sustainable futures

Understanding a business’s impact on the environment is fundamental data needed to change processes and culture. Today, AI is already being used to understand businesses’ carbon emissions. A good example of how AI is being deployed like this is CO2 AI and Climate Basic. In addition, studies by BCG have found that applying AI tools like this has a massive commercial impact of up to $2.6 trillion in value through cost savings and new revenue. And Destination Earth aims to build a digital twin of the planet by 2030.

Legislation can also play its part says Lisa Wee, Global Head of Sustainability at AVEVA. “The Net-Zero Industry Act is a good example of how policies can drive progress in bolstering technology aimed at reducing carbon footprint. Indeed, it supports the development of strategic Net Zero technologies in the EU such as solar photovoltaic, electrolysers and fuel cells, onshore wind and offshore renewables, sustainable biogas/biomethane, carbon capture and storage, and grid technologies.

Lisa Wee, Global Head of Sustainability at AVEVA

“The European Commission also set out its proposal for a target of 90% emissions reduction by 2040 through decarbonised energy system, decarbonised industry with circularity and clean tech at the core, and infrastructure for hydrogen for instance. We need more initiatives like this.”

However, Stephanie Downs a serial entrepreneur, who is on a mission to end the environmental devastation of leather says: “There is a carbon accounting software for every industry now, and it is dominating the funding landscape. However, methane holds 80 times more warming power than carbon according to UN figures and contributes 30% of the rise in global temperatures. There is already groundbreaking European technology out there that is tackling this issue head on by developing methane-resilient, we just need to ensure that it receives funding. Then there are solutions that are indirectly tackling methane emissions, like leather alternatives. Plastic is another environmental challenge actively being tackled by technology.”

And Helena Nordin, Head of Corporate Responsibility, Advania Group and Chief Sustainability Officer Advania Sverige explained to Silicon UK, how their company leverages technology to reduce their impact on the environment:

Helena Nordin, Head of Corporate Responsibility, Advania Group and Chief Sustainability Officer Advania Sverige

“Technology brings both positive and negative implications for sustainability. It can be a powerful tool for creating a more eco-friendly society, but we also need to be aware of potential drawbacks and their social and environmental consequences. It’s a complex issue, and we need to address both sides responsibly.”

Nordin continued: “At Advania, we help our clients leverage AI, cloud solutions, and other technologies to improve resource efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of major sectors like transportation, food production, and construction. However, we also recognise that the IT industry itself consumes significant resources and energy. For this reason, we advocate for a shift towards circularity within the sector, moving away from traditional linear models towards responsible management throughout the entire life cycle of technology. Recognising this need, Advania Sweden has invested in a logistics centre to gain control over our IT hardware’s lifecycle and contribute to the transition towards a more circular economy.”

Natalya Yaskusheva Jarlebring, Environmental Lead, at Milkywire.

Natalya Yaskusheva Jarlebring, Environmental Lead, at Milkywire.
Can you share your perspective on the relationship between technological advancement and environmental impact? Is it inherently destructive, neutral, or potentially beneficial?

“Understanding how technology impacts the environment is complex. Technological innovation offers many benefits in certain areas, such as waste management. Advancements in waste processing technologies have the potential to revolutionize our approach to solid and chemical waste. These innovations can drive down costs and minimize environmental harm by efficiently managing and recycling materials that would otherwise end up in landfills or polluting our oceans.

“However, in areas like nature and biodiversity protection, the role of technology is more nuanced. While it can help by providing tools for monitoring, data analysis, and even intervention strategies, it cannot replace the fundamental need for hands-on conservation action. Technological solutions should be viewed as complementary to, rather than substitutes for, traditional conservation practices.”

In your opinion, what are the biggest environmental challenges that technology can realistically address? Are there some problems deemed “unsolvable” by technology?

“Technology can play a crucial role in addressing environmental challenges, particularly in improving monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) processes within conservation efforts. By making these processes more efficient, technology can significantly reduce administration costs for organizations on the ground, freeing up valuable resources and time that can be redirected towards actual conservation work.

“Technology can also help to enhance traceability and transparency in environmental initiatives. Tools such as satellite imagery enable us to monitor changes in land use, deforestation rates, and habitat loss with unprecedented accuracy. This facilitates better decision-making and enables stakeholders to hold those responsible for environmental degradation accountable.

“Another area where technology shines is in data analysis for nature and biodiversity conservation. With the vast amounts of data generated from field surveys, remote sensing, and citizen science initiatives, advanced analytical tools can help extract valuable insights into species distributions, ecosystem health, and trends over time. This knowledge is invaluable for guiding conservation strategies and prioritizing actions where they are most needed.

“It’s important to note, however, that while technology has enormous potential, it is not a universal solution. There are environmental challenges that may be beyond the reach of technological intervention. For instance, some aspects of ecosystem restoration and species reintroduction may require a more hands-on approach that technology alone cannot provide. An approach that integrates technological advancements with traditional conservation practices is essential for effectively tackling today’s complex environmental issues. At Milkywire, we are committed to harnessing the power of technology to advance on-the-ground efforts to drive meaningful change.”

Some technologies, like electric vehicles, are often touted as “green” but have hidden environmental costs. How can we ensure a holistic evaluation of technology’s environmental impact?

“It can be difficult to evaluate the true environmental impact of technology, especially when it comes to products often labelled as “green” such as electric vehicles (EVs). While EVs offer significant potential for reducing carbon emissions compared to traditional vehicles, they are not without environmental costs.

“To ensure a holistic evaluation of technology’s environmental impact, we must consider the entire life cycle of a product. This includes its operational phase and the resources and energy required for manufacturing, transportation, and eventual disposal or recycling.

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“Communicating these assessments to consumers in a transparent and understandable manner poses a significant challenge, so we must strive for clarity and accessibility in conveying the environmental costs of different products, empowering consumers to make informed choices that align with their values.

“It’s important to reflect the true environmental costs of technologies in policies and subsidies distributions. By incorporating these costs into decision-making processes, we can incentivize the adoption of more sustainable technologies while discouraging those with higher environmental impacts.”

Many environmental issues require international cooperation. Can technology facilitate collaboration and overcome political hurdles in addressing global environmental challenges?

“While technology certainly has the capacity to enable international communication, streamline data sharing, and create an environment conducive to collaboration, it cannot single-handedly overcome the political hurdles that often impede progress in this arena.

“Technology does serve as a powerful tool for breaking down barriers and fostering dialogue among stakeholders from different countries and regions. Platforms for virtual meetings, data-sharing mechanisms, and collaborative research projects can all help facilitate communication and information exchange on a global scale. However, it’s important to note that technology alone cannot solve for the will of different stakeholders to engage in meaningful dialogues and make the necessary advancements to tackle environmental issues collaboratively. Political considerations, divergent interests, and competing priorities often pose significant challenges to international cooperation.”

What are some of the biggest challenges or barriers to implementing tech-based solutions for environmental protection on a global scale?

“There are several challenges to implementing tech-based solutions for global environmental protection. One major issue lies in the accessibility and affordability of these technologies. The costs associated with accessing and adopting these technologies on a large scale, and thus can present significant barriers, particularly for communities and regions with limited resources.

“There are also worries about control, regulation, and safety. Who will be in charge of using these technologies, and how can we make sure they’re used responsibly and ethically? For instance, the monitoring of remote forest areas by indigenous groups using technology can inadvertently expose their locations, putting them at risk of harm.”

What role do you see citizen science and open-source technologies playing in environmental monitoring and problem-solving? Can they democratize access to data and solutions?

“There is significant potential in citizen science and open-source technologies when it comes to environmental monitoring and problem-solving. These approaches can help democratize access to data and solutions, particularly by overcoming the cost barriers associated with traditional technologies.

“Open-source technologies empower communities to develop and customize tools tailored to their specific needs, reducing reliance on expensive proprietary systems. Similarly, citizen science engages volunteers in data collection and analysis, expanding the reach and depth of environmental monitoring efforts.

“While open-source technologies and citizen science can enhance accessibility, ensuring the quality and quantity of generated data is very important. Also, concerns about data privacy, security, and ethical use must be addressed to prevent unintended issues arising, such as compromising the safety of vulnerable groups like indigenous communities.”

Concerns exist about the environmental impact of producing and disposing of technology itself. How can we promote sustainable development cycles throughout technology’s lifecycle?

“It is important to address concerns about the environmental impact of technology throughout its lifecycle. Implementing policies that hold manufacturers accountable for the environmental impact of their products is crucial. By placing responsibility on manufacturers to reduce resource consumption, minimize waste, and prioritize eco-friendly materials and production methods, we can incentivize sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.

“Educating consumers about the environmental costs associated with technology is also key. By raising awareness about the impacts of production, use, and disposal, consumers can make more informed purchasing decisions and prioritize products with lower environmental footprints.

“Promoting innovation and continuous improvement of technologies is key to driving sustainable development cycles. Encouraging research and development into more efficient, eco-friendly technologies, as well as supporting initiatives that promote circular economy principles, can help minimize waste and maximize resource efficiency.”

Is greenwashing still a clear and present danger businesses must be constantly aware of when reporting their environmental credentials?

“Greenwashing remains a clear and present danger that businesses must vigilantly guard against, especially when it comes to reporting their environmental credentials. While technology can undoubtedly play a significant role in reducing carbon and nature footprints, it should never be viewed as a substitute for genuine actions and commitments to sustainability. It’s imperative that businesses prioritize transparency, accountability, and tangible efforts to minimize their environmental impact, rather than relying solely on superficial or misleading claims of eco-friendliness.

“At Milkywire, we advocate for genuine and holistic approaches to environmental stewardship, ensuring that businesses uphold their responsibilities and contribute meaningfully to a more sustainable future. We advocate for beyond value chain mitigation, where companies invest in climate projects beyond reaching their own net–zero targets.”

Looking ahead, what do you see as the most promising opportunities for leveraging technology to safeguard the planet for future generations?

Looking ahead, technology will continue to play a pivotal role in providing access to information and connecting people, fostering a collaborative environment where knowledge sharing and innovation thrive. What’s more, by automating certain administrative processes, technology can free up valuable time for individuals and organizations to focus on the work on the field that matters. By harnessing these opportunities, we can pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient future for our planet and generations to come.”

David Howell

Dave Howell is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared across the national press and in industry-leading magazines and websites. He specialises in technology and business. Read more about Dave on his website: Nexus Publishing. https://www.nexuspublishing.co.uk.

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