Digital sobriety: managing the digital environmental footprint through measurement

12 janvier 2022 | ACTUALITÉS, Cigref in english, Communiqués, Publications du Cigref

Cigref publishes the new 2021 iteration of the work of its working group « Digital Sobriety », led by Christophe Boutonnet, Deputy Director of Digital at the Ministries of Ecology, Territories and the Sea, Hervé Dumas, Sustainability IT Director at L’Oréal and Jean-Christophe Chaussat, Sustainable Development Officer, DGA SI at PÔLE EMPLOI and President of INR.

The report focused on awareness, drivers of action, governance and best practices for implementing digital sobriety approaches within the entire organisation. Cigref’s work on digital sobriety then continued, in partnership with the Institut du Numérique Responsable (INR), with the aim of addressing the issue of management via the measurement of the digital environmental footprint of large organisations. Indeed, the IT departments, with the support of the CSR departments, are asking for common methods and benchmarks for measuring the impact of the digital environmental footprint, approved by public bodies, in order to better support and evaluate the current proliferation of digital sobriety approaches. 

This report is also available in French. Click here to view it.

Measuring the environmental footprint of digital technology: a complex challenge

The issue of measuring the digital environmental footprint is a highly complex one because it requires:

  • Access to knowledge which is sometimes still within the field of research, with the result that many measurements are made using assumptions, especially when it comes to measuring the impact of the entire life cycle of a digital service;
  • Appropriation and awareness among developers and project managers, but also architecture and infrastructure managers, which means providing them with common, efficient and easy-to-use measurement methods and tools, and knowing how to support them in implementing them;
  • Collaboration and transparency in the entire ecosystem affected by the life cycle of a digital product or service.

Taking these theoretical and operational limits into account, organisations structure their approaches to measuring the digital environmental footprint around the following main areas: the deployment of life cycle analysis methodologies, the measurement of the impacts associated with IT assets and data centres, the integration of the measure in all new IT projects, the development of Digital environmental KPIs, the definition of skills dedicated to measuring andunderstanding the environmental impacts of digital technology, and finally the determination of the environmental ROI resulting from these steps.

New iteration of Cigref’s work on Digital Sobriety

The main areas of examination for 2020/2021 focused on the sharing of methods and results for the evaluation of the digital footprint and their management on the basis of priority actions, integrating the drivers of conviction based on scientific data and shared observations, limits encountered and the formulation of collective requests to strengthen the need for transparency and sharing of data regarding energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, not only for equipment but also for the digital services offered by suppliers.

A report in partnership with INR

The partnership with the Institut du Numérique Responsable provided additional expertise by offering the working group the opportunity to participate in the “WeNR” measurement tool, published in spring 2021 – a common and copyright-free tool, designed and supported by the INR and its partners. The results once again demonstrate the major impact of the manufacture of devices (at least on the scope under analysis: France, Belgium, Switzerland) and the need to develop ambitious policies relating to the lifespan of first-line equipment and software. Regarding this point, Cigref’s reports on Software and hardware obsolescence provide guidance to organisations and providers of digital products and services.

Measurement factors that can still be improved

Although the question of measurement should be able to take into account all criteria regarding the environmental footprint [emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), depletion of non-renewable abiotic resources (minerals and fossils), and the impact on water resources and on primary energy], it is currently wise to focus on the most precise factors that we have at our disposal; that is, the GHG emission factors, with the help of ADEME which also participated in the meetings of the working group.

In addition, given all the uncertainties in calculating GHG emissions, we should not wait until we have an exact measurement of these emissions before starting to take measures aimed at their reduction. Even if they are imprecise, the measurements enable us to identify the main areas in which we can act to reduce our emissions.

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