Climate action for software developers and data scientists

What can you do to tackle the climate crisis in your code?

August 17, 2020

Without action, ICT may exceed 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.1

If you’re a software developer, and you don’t have the option to focus on tackling the climate crisis full time, what are the best things you can do in your current role for the environment?

Data centre choice

Data centres are estimated to make up 45% of ICT’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s thought to be similar energy use as the entire aviation industry. Artist/researcher Joana Moll even visualised the trees needed to absorb the CO2 emitted by visits to google.com every second (spoiler: it’s a lot).

As a software developer, data centre choice is also likely the area you have most influence over. And some options are better than others:

  • “Enterprises choose 100% sustainable locations for new Cloud instances (e.g. use Azure, Google Cloud or the sustainable AWS regions of Dublin, Frankfurt, Oregon or Canada) and transition existing VMs there as soon as possible.
  • Enterprises inform their data center providers they want secure, sustainably-powered compute resources by 2024.
  • Individual technologists state their commitment by signing the Sustainable Servers petition.”

Source: The State of Data Center Energy Use in 2018

When starting a new project, choosing sustainable servers is likely your highest impact action.

You can check whether your existing projects are powered by renewable energy at The Green Web Foundation.

Efficiency

Writing efficient code, killing old services, remembering not to leave that job running. Business and environmental incentives often align here. But as compute gets cheaper, the pressure to keep server spending down might too.

If you’re a data scientist, training ML models can be compute intensive, and compute is increasingly cheap. Researchers have suggested two approaches:

  • Measure the carbon footprint of your model with ML CO2 Impact
  • Incentivise Green AI by making efficiency an evaluation criterion for research - aiming to make models greener and more inclusive/accessible with lower training compute requirements

Employee action

At larger tech companies, you might not have as much individual influence over infrastructure. But folk at big tech companies are using collective action to push for better climate outcomes, such as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, Googler protests against big oil contracts, and the #11at11ClimateStrike. Responses have frustratingly included Amazon firing some of the excellent climate action leaders who spoke up for warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Community wisdom

If you’re keen to make change, it helps not to do it alone.

ClimateAction.tech is a global online community of tech folks using their skills, expertise and platforms to support solutions to the climate crisis. They have an active international Slack and have also held in person meetups in London (pre-COVID).

Software engineers are humans too

Once we’ve automated everyone else’s jobs, we’ll probably automate our own too. Until then, software engineers are humans, so the highest leverage climate actions for humans apply here too. I summarised evidence-based climate actions for most people here.

Further resources

What’s missing?

If you think there’s something missing, I’d love to hear on Twitter.


  1. Assuming emissions from other sectors remain at 2016 levels.

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