Global economic growth, as well as the exponential demand growth in digital market have led to increase in ICT sector’s energy and resource use needs, and thus greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. You would be surprised to learn that ICT sector now accounts for 2.1–3.9% of the global emissions, which is comparable to that of aviation, but few people know about. Therefore, curbing ICT sector emissions is a key issue for achieving net zero goal for carbon emissions by the middle of this century.

Estimation of carbon footprint for businesses lies at the heart of climate change mitigation efforts. By knowing the carbon “hotspots” in the value chain, businesses can develop targeted and effective policies to reduce their emissions.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s Corporate Standard is the primary guidance for defining key principles and methodological considerations for calculation of GHG emissions.

The emissions are divided into three scopes for defining organisational boundaries:

  • Scope 1: includes direct emissions from business operations, including use of fuels for heating, fuels for company-owned vehicles, etc.
  • Scope 2: includes indirect emissions from electricity and heating usage during business operations.
  • Scope 3: includes further indirect emissions that emerge during product value chain: from upstream services and goods purchased by the business to logistics, and downstream (end-use of products/services).

For ICT sector in particular, ICT Sector Guidance built on the GHG Protocol provides classification of ICT products and methodological considerations for calculation of emissions associated with various activities and materials used in the value chain.

It is noteworthy to mention that relevance is one of the main principles defined by the GHG Protocol’s Corporate Standard, therefore, calculation of emissions under each category should be adapted to specific context. For instance, most ICT companies’ energy usage is only from electricity, and products are only digital. These factors make some emission categories irrelevant for the organisational context, such as the following:

  • Stationary and/or mobile fuel combustion
  • Waste generated during operations
  • Transportation and distribution of goods
  • End-of-Life treatment of sold products

There are also some cases where specialized approach is required: for instance, calculation emissions from employee commuting, where employees are working remotely from home: in this case, emissions from electricity usage can be applied, where local electricity grid emissions factor plays a key determining role.

Speaking of digital products, the emissions tied to their “production” and “consumption” (i.e. end-use) are also determined by corresponding electricity usage, i.e. the amount of power required to use the digital product and enable its application.

For Upstream Leased Assets categories under Scope 3, electricity usage from running servers for provision of web-based software solutions can be applied. Some cloud-server solutions have committed to provide carbon-neutral services. As an example, both Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure aim to power their servers from 100% renewable energy by 2025.

For category of “Use of Sold Products”, similarly, electricity usage from users running the software can be applied to get estimates of carbon footprint. Availability of high-quality data related to these indicators can help in GHG emissions calculations:

  • number of daily active users, their data usage,
  • computational efficiency,
  • location (country) where users are based (proportional to the local electricity grid emission factors
  • server sizes, uptime.

The main area of action under this category is through developing energy efficient applications, that use less data and computing energy. A study done by Greenspector showed that for one-minute videoconferencing, Google Meet, Tixeo, and Microsoft Teams ranked as the top three most efficient (i.e. least impact) applications (tested for an Android smartphone, refer here for the further details).

ICT companies, with digital solutions as their product, can serve a wide community of consumers (end-users). For example, an application developed by a team of 20 developers can be deployed to thousands of end-users. Accordingly, end-use of such products are likely to be one of the top sources for carbon emissions. On the other hand, owing to the nature of their work, Scope 1 and 2 emissions will be substantially less. This trend has also been observed in a recent work at AvantGarde: our calculations for a communication platform company revealed that end-use emissions (category 11 - “Use of Sold Products”) accounted for 92% of their scope 3 emissions for 2021.
Breakdown of ICT Sector carbon footprint. Source: our study done for an ICT company specialized in communication platform, including audio and video conferencing.