Business leaders and politicians are looking to the technology sector for ways to reduce carbon emissions, mitigate the effects of climate change, and provide the jobs of the future, a new survey has found.

More than 85 per cent of respondents to a YouGov survey for Salesforce's Trail to Net Zero for Australia report said they believed technology “will play an important role in helping achieve a net zero target by 2050” – 62 per cent said technology’s role will be “very important”.

The effects of climate change are already being felt by our Pacific neighbours who are urging Australia to do more to reduce emissions and provide financial support for people in countries like Fiji or the Solomon Islands who produce far less CO2 but have rising tides lapping at their doors.

Technology and communications was up there with energy, and transport and logistics, as the parts of Australia’s economy doing the most to cut carbon emissions as we head to net zero.

That sentiment was echoed on Wednesday by Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic whose government legislated a carbon emissions target of 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, with a view of reaching net zero by 2050.

Speaking at the Australian Information Industry Association’s Tech and Sustainability Conference, Husic picked out the manufacture of battery and storage systems as a space in which Australia can be globally competitive.

“Energy storage systems will require your insight to develop the software and battery management systems to enable effective and sustainable operations,” he said.

“The thriving tech sector needs a large skilled workforce equipped to solve the problems of today and tomorrow, including global challenges like the ones that bring us here today with respect to climate change and the energy transition.”

Better tech, more jobs

Shifting the economy toward sustainable energy production and use is believed to be an opportunity for job creation, according to the Salesforce survey, with a majority of Australian business leaders saying they thought a net zero economy would result in more jobs – though the Baby Boomer generation was less likely (just 25 per cent) to share this belief.

While talking up the importance for tech jobs in sustainable industries, Husic said technology was “filled with opportunity for Australia and Australians”.

“The tech industry has experienced huge growth in the past decade alone, creating a hundred tech companies valued at over $100 million, has become the seventh largest employer – one in 16 Australians work in tech sector jobs,” he said.

“And this is a fact that we should all be pressing a lot more in the minds of people outside of this area that we’ve got such a deep interest and passion in.”

Even basic digital transformation efforts like cloud migration can help the environment with Salesforce publishing estimates that moving to the cloud could come with a reduction of carbon emissions.

Assuming a steady growth rate of Australian data centre usage and capacity, and technological advancement allowing cloud providers to offer more energy efficient services, Salesforce estimates cloud migration would see a reduction in 32 million metric tonnes of CO2 by 2030.

Sustainable technology

Not all technology use is equally energy-efficient, however, and there is a growing movement urging technologists to be more eco-conscious when developing software – something we should keep in mind when mentoring next generation of IT workers.

The Green Software Foundation, which is an affiliate of the Linux Foundation and has a board comprising representatives from Microsoft, Intel, and consultancy firm Accenture, is working on standardising a method for calculating the carbon emissions of a software system.

An alpha release of its Software Carbon Intensity (SCI) Specification is available on Github.

SCI is a rate of carbon emissions per unit – be it an API call, machine learning job, or extra user on a platform – calculated by adding the combined energy a software product consumes, multiplying it by the local carbon cost of energy, and adding the amount of carbon emitted by creating and disposing of hardware.

The Green Software Foundation is focused on “reduction, not neutralisation” so a system’s carbon costs can't be offset by the likes of carbon credits.

“One tonne of carbon not emitted into our atmosphere is not the same as one tonne of carbon that has been offset,” it wrote.

“By far the more preferable goal is never to have emitted the carbon in the first place.”

When you consider the carbon cost of storage, computation, networking, backups, and everything else that contributes to software creations it can start to add up.

But there have been some debunked claims about how much energy digital services use.

In late 2020, the International Energy Authority (IEA) published a takedown of sudden media outrage about how much carbon video streaming uses after a report was published claiming the data storage, processing, and transmission of streaming services accounted for one per cent of global emissions.

IEA resolutely dismissed the numbers behind that claim, saying most of the carbon produced from watching Netflix was dependent on the device used – TVs chew up a lot of power – and had little to do with the energy cost of data processing and transmission.