Climate

Enterprise technology emits as much carbon as the United Kingdom. There are quick ways to fix that.

There’s a hidden source of carbon pollution hiding right under companies’ noses.

Computer setup

The business enterprise sector emits between 350 and 400 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases.

Photo: Farzad/Unsplash

Enterprise technology is often out of sight, out of mind. So, too, are its carbon emissions, which is why industry leaders have been slow to mitigate its climate toll despite the fact that enterprise technology emits as much carbon as the United Kingdom does.

The sector emits between 350 and 400 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases (a metric used to measure all greenhouse gases and standardize them to carbon dioxide), which amounts to roughly 1% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new analysis from McKinsey.

While data centers’ energy use often grabs headlines, McKinsey found that personal business technology such as laptops, smartphones and even printers contribute up to two times more to the sector’s carbon emissions.

The report covers emissions solely resulting from a company’s own on-site enterprise operations and the indirect emissions resulting from end user devices that the company relies upon; it excludes those from technology that the company is selling to customers, be that in the form of data center capacity or operational devices.

While a single server emits far more carbon than a single laptop on average, enterprise operations have more smartphones and laptops than servers. And these end user devices are replaced more often, adding to their carbon footprint.

Personal tech emissions are largely tied to manufacturing and upstream transportation before the items reach employees, as well as from disposal once they are retired. And these emissions are on track to increase nearly 13% per year between now and 2026.

The use of enterprise technology in the communications, media and services sectors results in particularly high emissions, coming in between 80 and 85 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. And banking and investment services is not far behind, with its use of enterprise technology resulting in between 60 and 65 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

CIOs and other enterprise leaders have a few solutions at their disposal to address this mounting problem, and they come at minimal cost. In fact, between 50% and 60% of end user device-related emissions can be minimized by changing how they are sourced, such as by buying fewer devices per person. McKinsey also recommended that enterprise leaders expand device recycling practices. And when it comes to data center-related emissions, McKinsey suggests companies migrate workloads to the cloud, given that “hyper-scalers and colocators are investing significantly in becoming greener.”

The report also recommends that enterprise leaders establish metrics for “green returns” on technology costs, focusing on the cost per ton of carbon saved as they consider suppliers and manufacturers of the technology that their operations rely on. To make the most of this approach, companies first need an established baseline performance in order to gauge how their emissions evolve over time. While tracking every element of a company’s carbon footprint can be an onerous and time-consuming task, McKinsey recommends that enterprise leaders prioritize those elements that have the biggest climate impact, such as the number of laptops purchased.

Careful tracking can ensure that companies make brisk and impactful changes, which is exactly what’s needed to turn the tide on the climate crisis. While many of these will take several years to result in substantial and long-term reductions, the report finds that there is some low-hanging fruit. For instance, promptly taking steps like buying fewer devices in the first place can reduce a company's enterprise-related emissions by up to 20% in a single year.

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