Understanding the environmental cost of tech

Despite the increasing focus on sustainability, many businesses struggle to understand the environmental impact of their technology

Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh: ‘There’s still work to be done on recognising the connection between the organisation and its wider environmental impact’. Picture: Shane O'Neill

When it comes to sustainability, many businesses trumpet the progress they have made. Indeed, reading annual reports one often comes across the terms Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 as milestones on the road to carbon neutrality.

This is a useful means of measurement said Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh, assistant professor in accounting at Dublin City University Business School, and they allow businesses to understand the emissions they are responsible for.

“With Scope 1 and 2 we’re seeing businesses get a handle on things, particularly the larger ones,” she said.

Scope 1 emissions are direct greenhouse emissions that occur from sources controlled or owned by an organisation, such as emissions associated with fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces and vehicles. Scope 2 emissions are indirect greenhouse emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling.

“Something like carbon is not very hard to get a handle on,” O’Dochartaigh said.

Some things are a lot harder to get a handle on, though, she said. Indeed, Scope 3 is proving much more difficult for companies precisely because it measures what have hitherto been considered externalities.

“Where they are having an issue is Scope 3, around value chain emissions. We’re talking about where the material is coming from, what happens to the technology in its up and down streams. That is something that companies have less capacity to assess as it's very hard to think about something that is outside their organisational boundaries,” O’Dochartaigh said.

Scope 3 encompasses emissions that are not produced by the organisation itself, and therefore not the result of activities from assets owned or controlled by them. However, Scope 3 instead measures those that an organisation is indirectly responsible for, such as when they buy, use and dispose of products from suppliers.

Today, the most obvious example is the data centre: essential to business and supporting everyday operations, but handled by a third party.

O’Dochartaigh said that more needs to be done to ensure businesses understand their responsibilities in this. Whereas electricity used to power a server on-site is understood and calculated, once that computational load goes out to a data centre it is often forgotten about. Nonetheless, data centres are processing data for companies, so it is important for them to understand that.

“They [data centres] are there because of the users. There's still work to be done on recognising the connection between the organisation and its wider environmental impact,” she said.