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Well begun is half done – but to reduce our carbon footprint we must employ every tool in our technology toolbox

Published in Sustainability, Technology

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February 12, 2024 · 6 min read time

Digitalization and the advancement of technology yield us tremendous opportunities, but they also present significant environmental challenges. Emissions from the ICT sector have reached the level of the aviation industry and continue to grow. Accordingly, responsible practices must hold increased prominence when choosing between technologies and during system development – it makes sound business sense as well.

Currently, information and communication technology consumes about a tenth of the world's electricity and accounts for 3–4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, per estimates. For comparison, aviation emissions are about 2 percent.

The heightening pace of digitalization represents a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly and thus mitigate climate change. On the other, the ease of use of services contributes to their increasing consumption. Depending on the estimate, the ICT sector's predicted electricity consumption over the next ten years could increase from six percent to a staggering 21 percent.

Thus, responsibility and reducing the carbon footprint are white-hot issues within the ICT sector as well. But what does responsibility mean in terms of technology choices and practical software development?

"At Nitor, our starting point towards responsibility has long been rooted in quality thinking: we do the work properly from the get-go. The idea of a code that comes with a lifetime warranty, has been a key tenet of our work long before current discussions concerning responsibility and climate sustainability," says Pasi Niemi, CEO of Nitor Care.

It is essential to consider the entire life cycle costs within a given project, especially if the service is geared to run for many years. A system implemented at a lower initial cost can become much more expensive in the long run due to usage and update costs.

"Quality work is also environmentally sustainable: we do sensible things in a sensible way without wasting resources. An example would be ensuring that no systems are left running needlessly in the background," says Akseli Lukkarila, one of Nitor’s Software Developers.

It is also good practice to brief the client on implemented measures.

”We find it vital to justify what we do and why – that in and of itself is responsible,” notes Santtu Vuori, Managing Director at Nitor Sweden.

Keys to better choices: cloud services, greener code, and serverless solutions

Let's start from the beginning.

"A significant part of a system's carbon footprint is created via its implementation – for example, the carbon footprint consisting of the computers of the workforce, services used, commuting, and so on. When that system is then uploaded to the cloud, its electricity consumption may fall drastically," Niemi outlines. "That's why we tend to assign compact teams to client projects and monitor cloud costs on a monthly basis."

Regardless, the carbon footprint of large systems can represent a significant factor. Resource requirements should be minimized from the start. By following healthy principles of software design and programming, both energy consumption and project costs may experience a notable downturn. It is essential to consider available computing capacity as a limited resource.

"The greenest and most cost-effective code is no code at all. Therefore, it is essential to be mindful of what issues the project aims to solve from the very beginning. With solid system architecture significant amounts of resources may be saved before a single line of code is written," Lukkarila notes.

Programming language also has a part to play. "Modern programming languages have the energy efficiency of old low-level programming languages, but with the feature sets of higher-level programming languages enabling faster and smoother software development. Prime examples are Go and Rust, which can greatly help reduce the number of required servers and resources, for example," Lukkarila states.

For example, a study conducted in 2017 found that C and Rust programming languages were significantly more energy-efficient than the other languages, with Javascript and Python consuming up to four and 75 times more energy than C and Rust, respectively. The cloud can be an extremely energy-efficient operating environment for applications and can significantly reduce both operational costs and the carbon footprint. For example, Finnish transit service Matkahuolto has reported yearly savings of €400,000 by making its information systems more ecological.

"Most of the solutions we maintain are related to public cloud services, and we constantly strive to find better and more sustainable solutions. Transferring workload from a data center to the cloud will cut the carbon footprint in half at minimum, but demonstrating it is still a work in progress for public cloud service providers. However, these tools are being developed and we are actively following that work," Niemi says.

Serverless solutions can also reduce the carbon footprint alongside many other benefits. If a more traditional infrastructure is employed, technical teams do not always optimize the allocated server capacity in relation to the actual workload being handled.

"Serverless solutions can reduce the usage of required computing power. They also have a hand in emission optimization, as resources are spent only as truly needed. This means that less energy is consumed by dormant or otherwise unnecessary processes," Vuori says.

Serverless solutions afford cloud providers means to share resources between customers and optimize their use. An application implemented with serverless technology scales easily. Computing power is consumed only when users require the application.

Artificial intelligence and greener-footed data centers loom in the horizon

Over the next five years, sustainability will take increasing precedence in business and service planning – at least according to Niemi, Vuori, and Lukkarila. Sustainability starts with service design and business planning. In general terms, this means that companies are giving more comprehensive consideration to the types of services they offer and how these affect people and the environment.

"This is already a part of the bidding phase. Clients are increasingly interested in the sustainability of Nitor’s processes, and requirements to keep tabs on the carbon footprint and social responsibility applies to smaller companies as well. This is prevalent in the Swedish market as well, where Nitor is still a smaller player than in Finland," Vuori notes.

In the future, public cloud service providers in the European Union will have to meet stricter requirements. For example, Amazon Web Services aims for net-zero emissions by 2040, stating that employed electricity will be produced via renewable sources by 2025. In 2022, 90 percent of Amazon’s electricity usage was derived from renewable energy sources.

Ethics, cybersecurity, and proper data handling are becoming increasingly significant factors in technology development, especially regarding artificial intelligence and data collection. New legislation is being drafted to address these challenges, and responsible practices are a key factor in technology projects on all levels.

"Artificial intelligence will penetrate our daily lives more and more, and the challenges it brings will become increasingly seminal. It is also important to closely monitor the effects on the carbon footprint, as using artificial intelligence may require a multitude of resources compared to traditional programming. Biases in the data used to train artificial intelligence must also be considered, and the protection of sensitive data such as healthcare information is essential to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands," Vuori emphasizes.

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