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Will tech be the answer or an obstacle on the path to organisational sustainability?

By Nick Wilson | |6 minute read

When it comes to sustainability, technology is a double-edged sword. While business leaders are relying on new tech to lower carbon footprints and achieve net zero targets, it’s important to remember that tech is among the biggest carbon emitters globally.

Tech as the culprit

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, said Harvey Nash, the global technology industry is responsible for roughly 3 per cent of global carbon emissions – a figure that is expected to grow and keep growing.


Even the most innocuous forms of technology often add massive amounts of carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere. Email communication, for example, is said to add the carbon equivalent of putting 7 million new cars on the road around the world.

While data centres – those subterranean jungles that our data and associated critical applications call home – need a staggering amount of electricity to function, end-user devices are even more to blame for tech-based carbon emissions, said Harvey Nash.

Climatiq estimates that data centres contribute up to 3.7 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, while personal computing, other research said, is responsible for approximately 1 percent.

“With more than 6.5 billion smartphones and 1.2 billion tablet devices estimated to be in current circulation, it’s no surprise that technology companies are major creators of carbon,” said Harvey Nash.

At any rate, tech is a climate risk to be managed.

Tech as the solution

On the other hand, technology could well be the best way to facilitate a transition to a sustainable business future. Only 5 per cent of respondents answered “no extent” when asked to what extent the board of their company values or recognises technology as a crucial piece in improving organisational sustainability/carbon footprint.

Thirty-five per cent answered “great extent”, while 12 per cent answered “extreme extent”, and 34 per cent said “some extent”. This and similar business sustainability trends were unpacked in Harvey Nash’s recent Digital Leadership Report.

“For all its carbon spew, technology also has a massive part to play in delivering sustainability. It can reduce the need for travel and deliver data insights to improve performance,” the report said.

The power of tech can only be unleashed once business leaders and governments begin taking it seriously, however.

“Change often begins at the top – through national and bilateral government policies, and the world’s largest companies leading the way,” said the report.

Concerningly, business leaders from certain industries are far less likely to take sustainability as seriously as others – with tech at the helm. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents who work in tech said their company had no net zero target, making it the industry with the lowest net zero ambition.

The following industries were close behind:

  1. Healthcare (at 51 per cent)
  2. Business/professional services (at 50 per cent)
  3. Financial services (at 48 per cent)
  4. Education (at 47 per cent)
  5. Charity/non-profit (at 43 per cent)
  6. Retail (at 43 per cent)
  7. Manufacturing/automotive (at 39 per cent)
  8. Construction/engineering (at 36 per cent)
  9. Transport/logistics and government (both at 28 per cent)

Behind tech’s poor performance, said the report, could well be a misconception that only certain industries are responsible for global carbon emissions. “Heavier” industries, for instance, might appear to be the natural culprits.

Of those leaders with plans in place, one-third have set a 2030 deadline, while another 18 per cent have set them further into the future. For those with targets, 59 per cent said they are on track to meet them. A further 35 per cent said they “will almost reach it”, while 6 per cent said they will not get there.

Laura Robinson, director at Harvey Nash, called the lack of planning around net zero a “disconcerting revelation”. She continued: “This finding is particularly perplexing given the unanimous acknowledgement of net zero as a crucial priority.”

“One thing is certain: a miracle solution isn’t just over the horizon,” said Harvey Nash. “Digital leaders will need to find the right way to use technology if they are committing to a more sustainable industry.”

According to McKinsey, business leaders must “play offence” in using tech to get to net zero with the following three objectives as guiding principles:

  1. Create carbon transparency.
  2. Develop decarbonisation solutions at scale.
  3. Use a green prioritisation matrix to improve decision making and impact.

“Achieving green impact doesn’t have to mean increasing costs or sacrificing profit,” said McKinsey. “With good data to fuel decision making, companies can achieve a positive financial impact while making progress towards net zero targets.”

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.