How can we harness information technology to be more sustainable?

information technology

Here, Defra’s Chief Digital and Information Officer and Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for sustainable technology across government, Chris Howes, tells us why the departments first Sustainable Information Technology (IT) strategy is such a significant development

The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently published its first Sustainable Information Technology (IT) strategy, following its well-received industry guide to help businesses achieve sustainable outcomes last October. This strategy will be a driving force in achieving the departments vision.

25 Year Environment Plan

Defra‘s vision is to make our air purer, water cleaner, land greener, and food more sustainable. Our 25 Year Environment Plan provides a blueprint for the environment using a different approach: one of natural capital rather than production, focussed on protecting and enhancing the natural world around us.

To achieve that we must make sure we both manage the impacts of technology whilst utilising its undoubted potential for good in responding to the environmental and societal challenges we face.

We have been undertaking this journey in Defra for several years now – developing and refining how we identify, manage, and mitigate the broader impacts of our technology estate. We reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 2019/2020 with average CO2 emissions per member of staff falling by 48%. 90% of Defra’s main data centres are now using clean renewable energy. More recently, our suppliers pledged to help Defra achieve net-zero by 2025 for the services that they deliver to Defra.

Climate change

The opportunities to help respond to the broader challenges of climate change are significant too. The recent World Economic Forum concluded that: “Digital technology can cut global (CO2) emissions by 15% or one-third of the 50% reduction required by 2030 through solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings, services, transportation, and traffic management.”

As an organisation, we’ve become more efficient at using resources and reducing waste by sending zero IT waste to landfill four years in a row and recovering enormous quantities of rare metals from assets that couldn’t be re-used or sold – including over half a tonne of copper, a quarter of a tonne of aluminium and half a kilogram of gold.

It is not just about the environment either – issues such as child labour, modern slavery and conflict minerals mean that we have a clear obligation to manage how our purchases and activities can impact society.

Sustainable ICT

Of course, these changes have not come about, and will not come about, through the efforts of Government alone. Our sustainable ICT strategy will shape how we work in partnership across Government, industry and other sectors to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and implement Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the government’s sustainable technology strategy.

The strategy has been designed to be used by Defra staff, and the broader Technology Sector – ICT managers and architects, ICT users, ICT suppliers and supply chains, manufacturers, disposers, recyclers and interested stakeholders.

We believe that our ambitious internal action to achieve net-zero, improve reuse, demonstrate transparency and provide net gains for the environment will drive national and international influence.

Digital transformation

Digital transformation means thinking like a sustainable development strategist. If we think about it, sustainable development is the ultimate balance. If we can master this, then we can create better ways of driving and implementing digital transformation, which yields more significant benefits.

Delivering quality IT solutions while serving the public with a more diverse range of sustainable product offerings is difficult, we must be realistic about that. But to me, that is also exciting because the prize (people, planet, and profit) is a big one. Our five strategic pillars capture this complexity and the activities we need to take to achieve our objectives:

  • Reduce and mitigate carbon emissions.
  • Efficient resource use and reduced waste.
  • Demonstrate transparency and mitigate risk.
  • Make sustainability business as usual.
  • Providing net gains for the environment.

So, our ambitions in this space are quite clear. We cannot achieve sustainable development, Agenda 2030, and the 25 Year Environment Plan alone. We need everyone to work together including architects, directors, managers, staff, suppliers, citizens, start-ups, innovators, NGOs, private sector, etc. All have an essential part to play. It is also crucial that we continue to remember that technology sits at the very heart of our policies and strategies.

If you would like to learn more about our centre of excellence and our approach, please visit our Defra DeSA site.

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Chief Digital and Information Officer Director, Group Infrastructure and Operations
Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
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