The rise of remote workforces, cryptocurrencies and super-sized data centers brings to the forefront a concern in tech development that doesn’t get enough attention: The impact of computing and advanced technologies on the environment.
About six months into the pandemic, people began to notice cleaner air, clearer water and an overall calming effect on the environment in the reduced presence of industry. Memes were created and widely circulated that suggested maybe we were the problem after all.
That lasted for about six weeks before cabin fever set in, and we became impatient and ready to get back to business as usual.
In the time between the last quarter of 2020 and the sudden waxing and waning of NFTs, a few timid voices again raised concerns about the impact of super-computing and other technologies on the environment. Those concerns eventually became muffled amidst socioeconomic and political turmoil, fears about inflation, staff shortages and logistical issues surrounding supply chain disruption.
App development tried to fill some of those gaps and new data centers appeared as we struggled to find our footing again in a post-pandemic world.
While environmental issues have been a matter of growing concern for decades, the past few years have put a particularly intense focus on the issue, with entire industries growing up around everything from climate-friendly investing to carbon offsets, and more. The environmental impact of technology has become an issue yet unresolved in spite of a growing focus on sustainability.
Addressing the Elephant in Your Staging Area
The typical DevOps journey focuses mainly on how app development will impact an organization. Rarely does it address how development impacts the environment.
In addition to factors like improving time-to-market, reducing human error, debugging and making financial resource management more efficient, part of your DevOps strategy should include ways to reduce your carbon footprint and impact on the planet.
First, it helps to understand exactly how technology affects the climate and depletes natural resources so you can incorporate sustainable development into your plan in a meaningful way.
- Carbon emissions: It’s estimated that in 2022, there are already more than 16.5 billion mobile devices in use worldwide. Just one iPhone emits up to 86kg of CO2 over its life cycle, and 80% of that occurs before it even gets into the hands of consumers. This is just the tip of the carbon emissions iceberg, and it will only get worse.
- Power consumption: All of that carbon comes from somewhere, and taking a look at energy consumption from just one slice of technology provides a glimpse into just how heavily computing contributes to the problem. As of 2020, data centers used about 416 terawatts of energy annually. The Bitcoin network alone consumes more power than all global data centers combined. A single NFT transaction consumes 82 kWh of power and emits 48 kg of CO2.
Even relatively passive use of technology, like video streaming and remote collaboration, for example, has the potential to consume more power than entire countries. Add up all of the hours of Netflix, Zoom meetings and other remote activities and ponder the implications.
- Waste: Despite the number of devices in use, very little hardware is recycled. Electronic waste comprises 70% of toxic waste worldwide, and it’s estimated to total 40 million tons annually.
- Water consumption: You don’t often consider mixing water and electricity, but all of those data centers need to be cooled somehow. Internet usage alone uses 3,000 liters of water per person each year and emits 2,000 kg of CO2.
Cleaning up Your DevOps Process for the Good of the Climate
To become part of the solution, it’s important to do more than just invest in green businesses. Here are some steps you can take to clean up your DevOps process and become part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.
Identify Areas of Vulnerability
Software engineering and DevOps are increasingly embracing new territory and emphasizing sustainable engineering. The first step in the right direction is to become aware of how power and resources are consumed during your development cycle.
- How your power is generated. For example, are you dependent on fossil fuels or more eco-friendly methods?
- How often are you replacing or recycling hardware and other physical components? This is a goal in waste reduction.
- How are you cooling data centers and computing equipment? Are your efforts at maintaining optimal temperatures wasting resources?
Balance the Three Areas of Sustainable DevOps
In the realm of sustainable engineering, the process can be broken down into three categories: Technical, operational and environmental. The goal is to balance these aspects to monitor and optimize the development process and do the least amount of damage possible.
Enforce Sustainable Development Practices
Once you’ve identified areas of risk and set goals for sustainable software engineering, use the results to create and enforce a set of development best practices that better support environmentally responsible design and production. If you need some help or ideas, you can model your own initiatives after these emerging standardization principles.
Become Part of the Green Tech Community
In 2021, more than 200 countries signed the Glasgow Climate Pact, solidifying their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint and resultant environmental damage from tech development and use. The conference brought together stakeholders from businesses, government agencies and others to share information and create standards and best practices for sustainable computing and tech development.
Incorporate Tools That Support Sustainable Development
Tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are creating tools to help DevOps and IT monitor and measure the environmental impact of everything from cloud computing to app development. Seek out and incorporate these tools into your own set of best practices or work on creating your own solutions.
Tech development is intended to improve our quality of life and reshape how we conduct business. There’s no reason that intention shouldn’t extend to the world in which we live and engage in commerce.
The first step toward combating climate change without negatively impacting development is understanding how technology affects our environment. Then, we can make informed decisions that support responsible, sustainable DevOps.