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Why sustainable ICT is vital

On the left, a man with curly hair, glasses, beige shirt and brown trousers, centre, a woman in a blue and green floral dress with hair tied back, and right, a man with short dark hair, glasses and beard, wearing a blue hoodie and jeans.

Adam Turner, Lydia Tabbron and Florian Paviot explore the concept of Sustainable Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and ask some searching questions about what it really means.

Let’s start with a question to try and define what we’re talking about here. What is Sustainable Information and Communications Technology (ICT)? Is it about making our ICT sustainable, or is it about using ICT to make our lives and our impact on the planet more sustainable?

The truth is, it’s a bit of both. We can only hope to deploy new and innovative technology if we can fully calculate the true impact of that new tech on the planet.

The uncomfortable reality there is that we are a long way from achieving that calculation, and there are some facts out there which really bring the impact of ICT home. For example:

The mixed picture

Across UK Gov, Defra have been leading the way in delivering a UK Gov Carbon Footprint for all our digital services. Scope 2 data is available (the electric/carbon consumed in running the kit) but Scope 3 (the carbon footprint, and more, of the whole lifecycle from mining to disposal) is largely a black art.

Our UK and global suppliers are grappling with the reality of how complicated these scope 3 calculations are, and as an example the following chart from Capgemini demonstrates the extreme variation across the industry.

Some of these targets are general commitments and some are based on the Science Based Targets initiative and are therefore verifiable, but the picture is mixed.

What can we do?

Therefore, what can we do, as Defra, to help push the needle on this? We attack the problem from multiple fronts.

  1. Through our procurements we ensure that 100% of our projects and programmes are firstly assessed for sustainability (i.e. likely impacts and benefits). Then, on the novel and contentious ones, we insert globally leading criteria through tendering to ensure any new suppliers assist Defra group to meet our stringent net zero targets, and social value ambitions. And it should be noted we apply tougher levels of these than any other government departments.
  2. Through our Cross Gov STAR (Sustainable Technology Assurance and Reporting) group we bring all UK Government departments together to bring our collective buying power to influence and change industry. Our big success here in recent years has been forcing our cloud suppliers to provide service-based carbon reporting. This has moved from a blanket “no” from our suppliers to the new dashboards many of you will be aware of from the hyperscalers. The info provided by them is not yet up to the quality we need, but we have directly influenced and are continuing to influence them.
  3. Our Government Digital Sustainability Alliance (GDSA) was launched at COP27 and brings together key government suppliers to help us gather information to inform new policy on areas such as Scope 3 reporting, the Circular Economy and Ecological Impact Assessment.

Over the next few weeks, we will be running sessions for colleagues, as part of our ‘Sustainability’ month, on what we can do as individuals, projects, programmes, suppliers, managers and many more.

We will also be inviting some of our key suppliers to talk about the work they do, and we have a senior leadership session with the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) for our Executive Board, to bring the challenge and opportunity to the top table.

We will share some reflections from all this work in due course. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think are the big Sustainable ICT challenges facing us now and down the line.

Adam Turner, Lydia Tabbron and Florian Paviot lead the Sustainable ICT work in Defra. Why not leave them a comment about what you think are the big challenges and any ideas you have for solutions to these challenges.

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