Why We’re Aiming for a Sustainable Digital Future

It would take a lot more than a single blog to list all the benefits digital technology brings to the world.  

The term ‘digital transformation’, which is used as shorthand for the journeys organisations have embarked on to digitise their operations, is very apt because, quite simply, digital tech is transforming our lives - the way we communicate and connect, the way we do business, the way we understand the world around us.

The majority of these changes are very much for the better. But it’s very rare in life that you get pros without any cons at all.

One of the drawbacks the digital industry is having to confront is its environmental impact. Digital tech is a major consumer of energy, which also means it is now a significant contributor to CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Put starkly, we now know that the rapid acceleration in digital transformation we’ve seen over the last decade, for all the ways it has benefitted to us, has also made a not insignificant contribution to climate change.

The scientific consensus is that, in order to avoid irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change, we must limit global warming to no more than 1.5oC. To achieve that target, carbon emissions must be reduced to ‘net zero’ as soon as possible, which means a state where the amount of CO2 captured from the atmosphere equals the amount released. The UK government has just reaffirmed its strategy for achieving this target by 2020.

It’s a tough target to achieve and everyone - every individual, every business, every sector - has a role to play. At Key Element, we are already committed to doing our part to shifting digital onto a greener, more sustainable footing. Here’s why we believe it matters, and what we are doing.

What’s the issue with digital tech?

Digital technology might not strike you as an obviously ‘dirty’ industry. When we build a website or run a data analytics project, there are no chimneys belching out fumes into the sky, no waste products we have to get rid of.

But as a digital design and development agency, one thing we rely on fundamentally is electricity. Every app, every platform, every website that we build needs a device to run on. Every device runs on electricity. Without electricity, there would be no digital revolution.

Between 2012 and 2020, the percentage of global electricity supplies consumed by ICT networks doubled from 5% to 10%. It is forecast that that figure could double again to 20% by 2025.

The problem is, as long as we rely on burning fossil fuels to generate the majority of the world’s electricity, digital tech’s carbon footprint will grow and grow in line with its own rapid rise. Some estimates already claim that the digital industry is responsible for 3.7% of global carbon emissions. To put that into context, the UK as a whole contributes 1.1% of total emissions, the 17th highest of all 195 nations on the planet.

Offsetting the digital impact

Looking forward, the ambition is that more and more of the energy used to run digital (and other) technologies will come from renewable sources, lowering the digital carbon footprint at a stroke. But in the medium term at least, the practical assumption has to be that fossil fuels will continue to be leant on heavily to meet global energy demands. No one, the UK government included, expects we’ll be able to reduce carbon emissions to absolute zero by 2050, if ever.

Net zero is a compromise position which, as explained above, relies on balancing carbon emissions with carbon capture, or the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. This can be done by promoting natural carbon capture processes such as those that occur in plants, soil or oceans, or by developing technologies that stop CO2 being released into the atmosphere from industry.

From our perspective as a digital agency, we know that the servers and devices that our websites and apps run on are to some degree powered by electricity from fossil fuel sources. In a bid to reduce the carbon footprint of what we do, we’ve decided to invest in carbon capture programmes as a means of balancing whatever emissions result from our activities as a business. This is called offsetting.

To do this, we have teamed up with Ecologi, an enterprise that supports tree planting and other carbon capture projects around the world. As trees and plants 'breathe in’ CO2 as part of the process of photosynthesis, planting more trees and forests is recognised as one of the most effective ways of reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere, and therefore controlling global warming.

To date, Key Element has funded the planting of more than 1000 trees in Mozambique and Madagascar, as well as supporting projects to restore and protect natural carbon-capturing habitats in Columbia and Indonesia.

In addition, our contributions have assisted renewable energy projects in Vietnam, Bulgaria, India and Chile. Helping to increase use of green energy in any part of the world is another way to offset your carbon footprint, as every kilojoule of renewable energy used is a kilojoule less of fossil fuel-sourced energy.

In total, in a matter of months the projects we have supported have helped to capture or offset close to 40 tonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases - equivalent to the emissions from 60 long haul flights, or close to 100,000 miles driven in a petrol car.

Whenever you use a computer or a smartphone, or indeed build a new website or run a new application on a cloud server somewhere, it’s easy to feel that the environmental impact of what you are doing is a long way away - something abstract and out of your control. Unfortunately, because of the energy infrastructure we all rely on, it is very real.

As a digital agency and as individual tech users, we might not be able to accelerate the adoption of greener renewable energy resources beyond adding our voices to those calling for change. But through carbon offsetting, we can make a positive contribution to achieving the net zero target right now.

At Key Element, we’re committed to achieving a more sustainable digital future and we will continue to explore opportunities to play our part.

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