Zoe Amar: How charities are using tech to fight climate change

Conversations about climate change need to become part of our working lives, along with plans to change things for the better

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

What are you doing to fight climate change today? You might be putting out the recycling, drinking from a reusable coffee cup or buying organic fruit and vegetables. But with technology being so ubiquitous, could your laptop be key to averting environmental catastrophe?

As I write this many charities are wrestling with the upheaval of coronavirus and the capacity to work remotely has become a point of urgency. It could be that the systems put in place to manage the escalating pandemic in the immediate term could also play a role in longer-term challenges, such as our ongoing battle with climate change. We need to ask ourselves what role technologies can play in managing such crises.

I’ve been worrying about tech and climate change since reading that data centres, which power everything from your email inbox to streaming from Netflix, are forecast to consume 8 per cent of the world’s electricity by 2030. A 2019 report claimed that online video streaming creates as much greenhouse gas as the annual emissions of Spain. As we all rely more on digital, three charity experts are taking different approaches to offset this challenge. 

At the Royal Institute of British Architects, Avril Chester, executive director of data and technology, is committing to digital offsetting 

Chester has focused on calculating the organisation’s digital carbon footprint, starting with infrastructure consumption, then working out what Riba can reduce or offset, depending on what is advisable. After this, the organisation plans to set itself targets and create a plan for change. 

According to Chester, measuring the carbon footprint of your charity’s tech is no easy task, because it encompasses everything from your monitors, hardware and devices right through to what your charity has on the cloud. 

She was surprised to discover that there are no common standards for assessing this, and wants to use Riba’s learnings to help other organisations. She will bring together senior tech professionals from charities, public sector and corporate organisations at an event in June to help develop an agreed model that can then be shared across industries. 

Tech can also help charities find a common purpose and approach to the climate agenda.

Ruchir Shah, director of external affairs at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is leading an initiative to help environmental charities gather data to inform their policy and conservation work. 

The right online platform can help galvanise organisations into action. Shah says: “Collaboration across the sector, including charities and the public, is going to be vital. We believe Scotland's environment sector is ready to collaborate on digital transformation, and this year we have begun to support conversations between charities and the public sector.

The charity has achieved these conversations through webinars and the creation of an open wiki platform that includes resources to support transformation. In addition, Shah has launched a digital resource knowledge bank to help other environmental charities use tech to achieve their missions. 

The climate challenge is huge and charity leaders need to be ambitious about tackling it

Tom Watson, previously of Navca and now a freelance consultant for social good, argues that a sector-wide strategy on data is needed, adding that foundations could play a key role in this process.

“Funders need to work together to make applications, monitoring and reporting more aligned, and charities need to have strategies in place to collect and store only that data that will help them,” he says. 

Watson also recommends that charities consider the environment when procuring, asking if they are using data centres or hosting with net zero or a low carbon footprint. 

Our use of tech can help the planet. Many of us recycle or are stepping up efforts to be greener at home. At work we must now ask ourselves and our charities similarly tough questions: what am I consuming, what is the impact of this and how can I change things for the better?

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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