Why digital isn't included as an industry for the SBTi

Published by Chris Butterworth
on 13/06/2022

In todays efforts to become net-zero, SBTi is definitely leading the charge when it comes to validating and setting science-based targets and with good reason however one of the key industries that is missing is digital. The digital industry has grown exponentially in the past few years, accelerated by the pandemic and is not showing any signs of slowing; with a 20.1% increase in year-on-year spend on video ads this year predicted by Emarketer and mobile data usage growing by 46% been 2020 and 2021 reported by Ericsson.

The breadth and depth of the digital industry is far and wide; it could be digital agencies creating websites and web applications, social media marketers creating and sharing content on multiple platforms and startups creating new software tools and services and the entire infrastructure behind the scenes to power each of them. With this in mind, it makes sense to have the industry added as a sector with its own guidance and resources but there might be a few reasons why this hasn’t happened yet.

The key reason that comes to mind when considering why digital isn’t included as a sector, is down to measuring the impact of it. This is made more difficult when the software and hardware used can be (and normally is) completely unique for the infrastructure used by each organisation whether as a consumer or provider. As a provider, you may be able to estimate the impact of the infrastructure you use by using billing data or measuring energy demands in some way but creating an accurate measurement can’t really be done unless you own the infrastructure yourself.

This is what needs to change.

With no standardisation, there’s no consensus on how to accurately measure the full impact of digital operations. There are some that are making progress in some specific areas such as:

  • The Green Software Foundation - as the name implies it’s specific to a software application
  • The Green Web Foundation - similar to the GSF but focused on web technologies and hosting providers
  • Cloud Carbon Footprint - measuring tool using billing and usage data to calculate the impact of using cloud providers, although this only works with AWS, GCF and Azure for now.

This list doesn’t contain any additional services such as social media, email hosting or additional cloud storage e.g. OneDrive all of which have their own impact.

This highlights another potential reason, where does the responsibility lie? Is it with the vendor who could measure/estimate the impact of their entire infrastructure or with the consumer who could measure the impact directly linked to their usage. Also unless you run the infrastructure yourself as a provider, the emissions are all categorised as scope 3 under the GHG Protocol which don’t need to be included with any science-based targets unless the reduction target is greater than 40% yet scope 3 still isn’t required by some reporting standards.

The entire digital landscape is responsible for nearly 4% of global emissions which is more than the aviation industry which gets a whole lot more media coverage. While manufacturers can focus on the impact of their production and end of life processes, others need to focus on energy reduction where small changes can save tons of CO2e every single month. By reducing our energy demand on the services we use we can help the transition to a completely energy grid and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for power generation.

The responsibility of reporting and reducing energy demands and the emissions they cause is likely to lie both with consumer and provider. As tax legislation catches up and businesses are presented with the challenge of reporting their carbon emissions with transparency and accuracy - the SEC has already made headway with this with other countries likely to catch up soon. In this scenario providers should find the other in the same way as an increasing amount of consumers are looking for products that have a low environmental impact while reducing their own.