The hidden cost of digital: small changes can make a big difference

scott stonham
Scott Stonham

How doing nothing for five minutes could save over 300 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Winding road in a forest.

Digital is now more fundamental and pervasive in the education sector than ever, but behind the drive for digital transformation lie some fundamental misapprehensions when it comes to environmental impact. 

Digital technologies are often perceived to be a greener alternative than physical alternatives. However, while this may be true in some senses, digital might have earned too much unwarranted acclaim when it comes to green credentials. 

True, when compared to traditional media such as newspapers and magazines, a digital publication does not directly consume natural resources or produce physical paper waste. Similarly, conducting a meeting using video conferencing instead of having participants travel to a meeting doesn’t directly consume fossil fuels. 

However, digital does have a carbon footprint, and it is not inconsequential.

However, digital does have a carbon footprint, and it is not inconsequential.  

In fact, IT is often one of the biggest contributors to an education institution’s carbon footprint, and it’s easy to underestimate the environmental harm it can cause.  

It is, therefore, essential that purchasers and users of digital technology are mindful of the environmental impact that individual and collective usage can cause and, where possible, take measures to mitigate it. 

At Jisc’s 50th Networkshop event on 10 June, I will be talking about a report I produced for Jisc on the environmental impact of digital use, how to mitigate it, and the implications for colleges and universities. 

I’ll be looking at the challenges and opportunities that digital technologies present to educational institutions on their journey toward net zero, with a particular emphasis on the role of IT and technology leaders in helping to understand, mitigate and remove carbon emissions.   

I’ll also be offering practical advice and tips from industry leaders on addressing the digital carbon footprint of technology across the education sector and providing guidance that should enable operational management to take immediate steps to reduce the environmental impact. 

Based on best practice combined with an awareness of the cultural, economic and practical realities of the contexts in which further and higher education operates, the report highlights the source and impact of digital carbon footprints across procurement, on-premise IT, cloud technologies and remote working. 

The key to improving our digital carbon footprint is in taking informed action, which requires understanding and awareness. Colleges and universities can leverage technologies such as carbon calculator apps as well as real-time energy consumption and carbon emission dashboards to both measure and communicate impact. 

There are also smaller steps which can make a big difference: switching off IT equipment rather than leaving it on standby, using audio for calls rather than HD video or adjusting email behaviours, for example.  

And there’s one particular digital habit that could collectively be contributing almost 2,800 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year from the education sector alone - that’s almost 7 million miles driven in a car.  

Simply swapping five minutes of this behaviour to doing nothing could save over 300 tonnes of carbon emissions. 

Further information

About the author

scott stonham
Scott Stonham
Founder, Well, That’s Interesting Tech!