How green is our industry really?
I spent the day Wednesday at Massey University campus, an amazing day speaking with faculty and students, many stimulating discussions. They invited me to present on AI and ChatGPT and the opportunities these technologies will create in the near and longer term.
After the Q&A, while we were enjoying a pizza lunch, a group of students came to ask me how they reconcile the environmental impact of our industry against the opportunities it creates. Their perception - potentially quite rightly - is that the digital technology industry considers itself to be part of the lightweight economy, ignoring the impacts it does have on the environment.
By the end of the conversation it also became apparent how personally they all feel this, so our conversation turned to finding what you can impact on an individual level, how you personally can tackle challenges like climate or environmental impact - without taking the weight of that impact our entire industry creates on their shoulders. I dearly hope I didn’t come across as condescending but I was gravely concerned these passionate, enthusiastic students were becoming consumed by trying to effect change on a scale it is challenging for any of us to fight.
Here are the main themes we discussed as concerning environmental impacts the digital technology industry has:
Energy Consumption - globally the energy required to power data centres comes from fossil fuels, realising carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - you all know the story. The rate of growth of data and the compute power needed to drive it means data centres alone are projected create 3.5% of global emissions by 2030 (surpassing aviation and shipping) and 14% by 2040, consuming 1/5th of global energy consumption.
What should we do about this? We discussed whether governments should make it mandatory for data centres to be powered by sustainable energy sources? Or whether targets should be implemented specifically for data centres. It’s hard as consumers to know whether the global giants datacenter our data sits with is powered sustainably so we wondered whether a dashboard exposing each of them for the type of energy they use could help consumers choose which services to utilise?
Rare earth minerals - cobalt, lithium, coltan, neodymium - there is a list of all 17 REE’s from the bottom of the periodic table in this article. The impact of mining and refining these minerals is significant, toxins in the air, water pollution, soil contamination, runoff etc, it’s also hazardous to mine many of these and the working conditions for workers poor in many cases. Then there’s the question of extracting resources from the planet.
What should we do about this? I flippantly said they could all be on a quest to invent alternative components that won’t need to extract these rare metals, while we all laughed at this we knew it was one potential solution. Pressuring the industry to undertake sustainable practices, as individuals we can effect our power as consumers buying from those manufacturers who already do (I must look this up) and boycotting those who do not.
Waste - leaving the biggest discussion til last. We talked about two aspects of waste packaging and electronic waste.
- Packaging - the EU have clear targets in place for packaging reduction including “ensure that all packaging on the EU market will be recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030” The NZ Government have declared war on plastic packaging only at this stage and could go much further.
- eWaste - we have over 340 metric tonnes of electronic waste on earth, the amount of eWaste is growing significantly per annum 59.4mt of eWaste was discarded last year and by 2030 it will be over 70mt created. There are many programmes to strip down components, recycle metals, repurpose old equipment now but they aren’t of a scale they are addressing the majority of the worlds electronic waste yet.
What should we do about this? There are programmes here in Aotearoa NZ - give your laptops to RAD so they can be repurposed into the hands of someone in need, retailers like Noel Leeming and The Warehouse act as collection points for other kinds of waste like cameras and phones, your local refuse station will likely have a collection point (you might need to pay them to take your old TV off your hands but it’s better than putting it in landfill). Basically there is no reason to every throw your electronic waste into the landfill.
Conclusion - As I drove home from Massey I couldn’t help but wonder if we do have our heads in the sand as an industry, focusing on the light weight economy, remote working type features of our industry so we don’t have to think about the resource intensive, fossil fuel creating parts. I was inspired there is a generation who are gravely concerned by this and can see that we can all learn a great deal from them.
Below is a photo I took yesterday in the Catlins of our beautiful unspoilt coastline - long may we keep it this way.
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