Jisc urges universities to address environmental impact of IT

The report makes recommendations for both long-term and ‘low-hanging’ opportunities to reduce tech energy consumption

Jisc has launched a new report that urges universities to address the environmental impact of IT operations. 

The new report, Exploring digital carbon footprints, warns that technology usage and data storage significantly increase the emissions of the post-18 education sector. 

Jisc is a not-for-profit firm that offers IT services to the HE and FE sectors, including the national JANET network. 

Currently, there are no specific breakdowns of the IT-related emissions of the sector – but the report mentions one college that attributes 20% of its emissions to technology, with the sector average thought to range between 5-10% of total carbon emissions. Research-intensive universities – operating complex computers, servers and research equipment – could exceed these averages. 

Eighty per cent of tech-related emissions are released during manufacturing – with the remaining share associated with operation and disposal. Figures suggest that every 100 gigabytes of data stored in the cloud could generate 0.2 tonnes of carbon emissions per year, but 90% of data is stored and never used again. 

The report even estimates HE and FE staff scrolling through LinkedIn “could be generating up to 2,792 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year”.

This emerging demonstrates that “the greatest contributors to [sector] carbon footprints are the services and products they buy.”

Although technology – like smart sensors, 5G and video conferencing software – share a capacity to drive efficiencies that could lower energy and fuel consumption, much of the carbon emissions related to these products are related to the manufacturing process. The report recommends universities find ways to audit and address these scope 3 emissions.

A recent study by Lancaster University found that current estimations of global computing emissions only show a fraction of the damage, with actual emissions likely to be around 2.1 – 3.9%, compared to 2% of global emissions caused by aviation. 

Independent technology analyst Scott Stonham, the report’s author, offers practical steps for colleges and universities to reduce tech emissions. 

Suggestions include:

  • Better understand differences in workstation power consumption when using video conferencing with and without video enabled by using plug-in smart sockets or energy meters.
  • Monitor, measure and communicate energy usage between buildings, departments, or labs.
  • Conduct on-premises and cloud data usage audits to identify wasted data that can be eliminated.
  • Communicate the carbon impact of social media use and encourage a reduction in time spent endlessly scrolling through feeds, or even self-imposed ‘screen time’ limits for social media apps.
  • Encourage Wi-Fi use across campus and remotely.
  • Don’t ‘stand by’: turn off devices.
  • Use hardware for longer
  • Change hardware settings, opting for ‘dark’ themes, lower screen brightness and ‘intelligent’ hibernation and sleep patterns for tech. 
  • The design of buildings and facilities is crucial. Check whether the hardware can tolerate warmer operating conditions. House servers in rooms with low ceilings to minimise the amount of air to cool. Install AI to manage internal cooling and integrate free air cooling systems that use abundant cold air rather than air conditioning units. 
  • Audit tech usage to, for example, identify parts of the day and year when servers can be switched off. 

The education sector is at a very early stage in recognising and tackling the role technology plays in carbon emissions
Robin Ghurbhurun, managing director of FE, skills and member support (FE and HE)

The report was commissioned by the managing director of FE, skills and member support (FE and HE), Robin Ghurbhurun, who also has responsibility for Jisc’s external sustainability agenda.

He states: “The education sector is at a very early stage in recognising and tackling the role technology plays in carbon emissions, whether that’s data storage, procurement, the sustainability of equipment or even the video conferencing tools we use to work remotely.”

Read more: UKRI seeks to ‘eliminate’ carbon footprint

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