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The future is climate-friendly software

How coding and application design can pay a role in decarbonization.

Software coding on a computer screen

Last week, Microsoft announced it is teaming up with Github, Accenture and Thoughtworks, a software consultancy, to inspire emissions reductions using a little-considered tool: software. The new nonprofit organization, Green Software Foundation, aims to change the culture of software development to prioritize sustainability.

I admit, I hadn’t considered software design as a major contributor to greenhouse gas. But the folks at the foundation make a compelling case that as everything becomes more connected, the way we build the software can have profound impacts. 

"We often look at sustainability in tech through the lens of hardware, focusing on how to make hardware more carbon-efficient," said Asim Hussain, green cloud advocacy lead at Microsoft and executive director of the Green Software Foundation, in an email. "Relatively little has been done to look at sustainability through the lens of software. From where we are sitting, there seem to be some ripe easy pickings for sustainability improvements by looking at how we run software on hardware."

What is 'green software'?

Green software takes into account sustainability considerations and climate science to design software that is "carbon-efficient" — meaning it minimizes the quantity of carbon emissions per unit of work. It takes into account factors such as energy efficiency within its design. 

At the risk of getting wonky, the foundation broadly divides this software into different buckets: 

  • Carbon-efficient applications that more efficiently use resources linked to carbon emissions, (such as energy, hardware and networking bandwidth). 
  • Carbon-aware applications that change behavior to minimize carbon emissions. For example, this could be software that directs a laptop to run off battery power instead of the wall socket when local electricity is dirtier. 

Cumulatively, this type of software could have a significant impact. Software runs billions of internet-connected devices, from phones and refrigerators to data centers and personal computers. The foundation says that 20 percent of electricity output will be consumed by information and communications technology by 2030. The group has a goal to reduce emissions related to the industry’s software by 45 percent by 2030. 

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The foundation’s strategy is three-pronged: develop standards and best practices to make software consume less energy; support open-source innovation; and facilitate an international community. 

"We think we can pull some pretty big levers through just growing the ecosystem of people with the skills to build software that emits less carbon, as well as creating standards that organizations can easily adopt or that might influence policy decisions," Hussain said.

The data center example

Data centers are energy hogs. They’re also essential to our ever-connected world, and their energy demands are huge and expected to grow. In 2018, research suggests data centers were responsible for about the same amount of carbon emissions as aviation. Today, they’re responsible for 1 percent of global electricity demand, with projections that the segment will consume 3 to 8 percent within the next decade. 

While that is a tremendous amount of energy, data center consumption is less than we thought it would be 15 years ago. Energy use in data centers doubled from 2000 to 2005, a trend we thought would continue. Between 2010 and 2018, computing output jumped sixfold — but energy consumption rose only 6 percent.

In part, that’s thanks to the rise of cloud computing, which allows companies and individuals to use centralized data centers for computing and storage. Additionally, data centers have become more efficient. Software has had a big role to play, and can do much more. Google, for example, is working towards 24/7 clean energy for its data centers with the help of carbon-aware software.

These increased efficiencies illustrate how difficult it is to predict the future for disruptive technologies. It also reflects how tech companies, founded on the ethos of innovation, are positioned to reinvent their processes.

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