‘We have this idea that digital is carbon-free. It’s not’ – Jisc carbon footprint report analyst

Scott Stonham talks to ET about practical ways institutions can make small changes and reduce their digital carbon footprint

Jisc could not have recruited a more ecologically-committed analyst for their digital carbon footprint report. Upon arriving to our Zoom call, the first point Scott Stonham makes is to apologise for being a few minutes late as he’s currently installing his own solar panels at home as part of a project to build his own micro-grid and make his home office fully self-reliant. He informs me this makes our web call a wholly green conversation.

Scott, who is an independent sustainable technology analyst at Well, That’s Interesting Tech!, was commissioned by Jisc and asked to work on sustainability and technologies in further education which he was “delighted” to do. The subsequent report, released in June this year, has exposed just how much emissions are created by the everyday activity of universities and colleges, and urges institutions to reduce their carbon footprints by making small, practical changes.

The problems with procurement

Carbon emissions fall into one of two categories – those generated during manufacture or those generated when using a product. Around 80% of the carbon footprint of a laptop or mobile phone, for example, comes from ‘embodied carbon’ and all the mineral mining, transportation, processing and shipping that’s necessary to produce it.

This is why Jisc’s report mostly focuses on analysing where institutions get their technology from. 

One way institutions can reduce their carbon footprint is by using refurbished products rather than buying new: “In order to have the biggest bang for your reduction buck, you need to use things longer, which means you have to buy things less. And the education sector has been very good at extending lifetimes of things but there’s still room for more, particularly in the world of remanufactured and refurbished IT.”

Of course, refurbished technology isn’t always straightforward to get hold of for large institutions. Compliance and regulatory issues tend to complicate the installation process and working out how to extend lifetimes whilst maintaining cyber security is a ‘hot topic’, says Scott. 

But, he adds, “the climate benefit of keeping products longer is so extreme. The pain of having that conversation with vendors is absolutely worth it.”

Changing behaviour

The key to reducing carbon footprints is FE institutions changing fundamental behaviour.

“All the advice we shared in the report comes down to behavioural change. We think it’s difficult to change our behaviour, but it just comes down to the right motivation. I mean, look how we changed during the pandemic. We changed our lives massively.”

Scott says work must be done to make sustainable products feel desirable, to replace the allure of having something new. Being able to provide the buyer with helpful information about the carbon footprints of different products will be a major player in making this happen, but this type of data isn’t yet widely available.

Changing customer perception of products is an old trick. In the early 2000’s the iPhone went from being eschewed by business executives and IT security teams who favoured the reliable Blackberry, to being the definition of a must-have device, despite being more expensive and complex. The same shift is happening to refurbished technology.

What used to be niche and quirky is now mainstream, with billion-dollar companies like BackMarket focused solely on extending the lives of consumer electronics and providing customers with a purchase guarantee, easy buying experience, and confidence in the delivery process. In many cases, all a laptop or smartphone needs is a good old clean of its electronics to make it perfectly usable once again, or if it’s the hard drive that’s expired, this can be easily replaced. BackMarket’s success in with consumer products suggests it’ll soon expand into the corporate sector, which is good news for educational institutions.

Where interest in refurbished products is waxing, the tech sector’s obsession with built-in obsolescence will have to start waning. Consumers are only becoming more frustrated with not being able to fix their own devices instead of replacing them – the right-to-repair movement is clear evidence of this.

Myth: digital activity is carbon-free

“We have this idea that digital is carbon-free. It’s not. Actually storing data in the cloud, even if we’re not doing anything with it, has a cost because you’re using devices and they need to be powered and managed in a data centre which has a cost,” says Scott.

Learning that something as commonplace as our social media usage is contributing the climate crisis has the potential to dampen people’s existing green efforts. How do we not make this an utterly dispiriting conversation?

“We should be aware that we were on a journey and for now just focus on finding those opportunities to do better. It can be quite an exciting conversation, because there are so many things we can do which won’t really impact our experience, but will mean we have a less bad impact.”

“What gets measured gets managed, and what gets communicated and rewarded, gets repeated. So if we want people to repeat specific actions, we need to acknowledge what they’re doing, which comes down to measuring and communicating. So it can be fun.

“I fully believe that technology can and should be a part of the solution as well. I’m trying to find those pieces of technology, those leaders, those businesses that are doing good things with technology and really shout about them.”

Scott’s tips for reducing your digital carbon footprint

  1. Switch devices fully off. Keeping your Alexa, phone docking station, TV and laptop on standby all adds up and consumes energy.
  2. Turn off video on conference calls if you can, especially if you’re there just to listen to the conversation. Every byte you create and send has a carbon footprint.
  3. Turn it down, whether that’s the office fans or screen brightness.
  4. Streamline email. Save reply all for when necessary and don’t include email signatures every time.
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