Taming the energy-guzzling ICT sector

By Yogesh HirdaramaniSol Gonzalez

Green software engineering is the way forward to curb runaway greenhouse gas emissions of the technology industry, says Green Software Foundation’s Chairperson Sanjay Podder.

Green software engineering (GSE) provides tools to reduce emissions from the start of the software lifecycle. Image: Canva.

With governments around the world trying to meet the Paris Agreement targets to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), there has been an increased focus on creating solutions to ensure that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry becomes a more sustainable consumer of energy.

A 2018 study done by Belkhir and Elmeligi noted that, if left unchecked, the ICT industry’s GHGE contribution worldwide could grow by 14 per cent in 2040, when compared to the emission levels in 2016.

Adopting green software engineering (GSE) solutions can help reduce emissions from the sector, since the use of digital tools and generative AI (GenAI) are here to stay, says Green Software Foundation (GSF)’s Chairperson, Sanjay Podder, to GovInsider.

GSE refers to best practices to build applications that reduce carbon emissions, according to tech news site IEEE Spectrum.

The Green Software Foundation (GSF) aims to lower emissions from the digital stack by creating a culture change that ensures all organisations embed sustainability as the primary focus in their software engineering process.

GSF members encompass businesses, tech leaders, non-profits and academia who provide a wide representation of perspectives on digital sustainability.

Members of the foundation “get to create the future,” Podder says. One such creation is the Software Carbon Intensity (SCI) Specification, which is now an ISO standard that provides a global standard for calculating carbon footprint.

With a background in research and development and having over 70 patents in software engineering, Podder shares how to implement technology “the right way” – to reduce its environmental impact.

Tackling the AI in the room

Energy consumption of AI grows at the same rate as its capabilities – the more powerful the AI, the greater its energy requirements,

Podder highlights AI tools key to addressing sustainability challenges. He shares that several techniques can help reduce emissions across the AI lifecycle, from training to inferencing.

New, more efficient custom silicon chips and accelerators are emerging, he adds. These advancements are computationally powerful while requiring less energy. AI providers are also developing smaller models for batch inferencing that reduce emissions.

A lot of actions are possible in the realm of sustainable AI use, says Podder. The GSF has set up the Green AI Committee to identify the best practices for using AI sustainably.

“That's what we want to make available to developers so that they can build digital technologies, digital stack, AI, in a much more carbon efficient way,” Podder adds.

Levers to enact change 

GSE targets the root problem with carbon-efficient and carbon-aware software.

Buying carbon offsets is not enough to make a difference – one must ask “how to make software itself emit less?” says Podder. The way forward is in reducing emissions from the start of the software lifecycle process.

Sanjay Podder's work focuses on decarbonising digital technologies. Image: Accenture.

A carbon-efficient software designed with GSE minimises emissions throughout its lifecycle by optimising energy.

For example, hosting programmes on the public cloud reduces emissions since most cloud service providers (CSPs) are powered by renewable energy, provide elastic capacity, and allow for optimisation.

Users can also use copilots to write energy-efficient code for shorter execution times and lower hardware demands. This also contributes to optimising data centres and reducing data that is stored but unused, Podder adds.

“In everything that you do, there are green software engineering practices to lower the emission.”

The other lever is the carbon-aware software, which knows intelligently the type of energy it uses to operate. The software is designed to optimise energy use and opt for renewable energy where available.

The foundation has created a carbon-aware SDK to help in sustainable software operations, shares Podder. “Suppose you want to run a training or a backup job, you can intelligently check: where should I run it? Which time of the day should I run it?”

Lowering energy use not only reduces emissions, but also costs. With these levers, businesses are willingly going green, Podder adds.

What governments can do 

GSF partners with government bodies, including Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and GovTech to drive digital sustainability efforts.

The national-level impact of the partnership creates the opportunity of having deeper conversations to address the implications of digital carbon emissions, says Podder.

He adds that a set of best practices around digital sustainability can serve as a template for other nations to adopt.

“For example, the green trial programme that the Singapore Government launched, fantastic, right? They're trying to make it real, you know, give actionable insight for adoption.

So, all this, to me, is a value [delivered through] the government's active participation in this space, and [this] partnership with GSF is a great, immense value and I see governments can do many things,” he says.

The green trial programme is launched by IMDA to test the effectiveness of carbon reduction techniques for software development. In turn, this will help IMDA set industry guidelines on developing green software.

Governments can incentivise adoption of sustainable digital technologies by regulating power usage effectiveness, and catalysing transformation efforts toward digital sustainability with actionable practices, such as the green trial program.

But these strategies must also address lower-scale operations to achieve larger net-zero goals.

“You can always talk at a high level about climate change, but what do you really do on the ground?”

One incentive is to set net-zero goals for large businesses, so that smaller vendors adhere to regulations and embed sustainable digital practices in their operations, Podder notes. He adds that awareness of the benefits of digital sustainability like cost-reduction is attractive for businesses of all scales.

With stronger regulations there is a corresponding compulsion to adopt these practices, says Podder.

“I’ve never seen a developer who doesn’t want to do this,” Podder shares. Millennials and GenZ, who are the current employees and software engineers, reflect a mindset-change motivated to address climate change.

As digital sustainability becomes central to lowering emissions, businesses and governments are incentivised to adopting green practices.

In the coming years, 30 per cent of organisations will make green software a mandatory requirement, according to a Gartner report.