Becoming a carbon neutral company and adopting green IT solutions is reaching a tipping point for organisations large and small who are realising the economic benefits of using renewable energy, as well as the grander principles of saving the environment.

In an article on CIO UK, Pat Brans argued that promoting green IT saved money and improved a company's PR, while Greenpeace Head of IT Andrew Hatton said that companies were "investing in green energy solutions because it's ethically right and because it also makes financial sense"

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See also: Who are the greentech startups to watch?

How are companies becoming carbon neutral?

For large technology companies it's the data centre which is critical, and Hatton says the tech innovation at the previously energy-sapping megasites is mature enough to mean these can now be powered by renewables.

Apple planned to construct two new data centres Denmark by 2017, fulfilling its commitment to use 100 percent renewables by running them on wind and biomass. Unfortunately, construction at the site in Aabanraa was abandoned before the project could be completed, with Apple instead choosing to expand the data centre being built at Viborg.

Apple's switch to using renewable energy come from the company's pledge to back the Paris climate accord. However, many so-called big tech companies have continually come under fire from environmental activists for not doing enough to fight climate change.

A number of technology heavyweights such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have committed to 100 percent renewable energy use in the coming years. However, Greenpeace recently accused Amazon of abandoning that target in order to win business from the oil and gas industry.

In 2018, Facebook announced its plan to go 100 percent renewable by 2020, while also reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 75 percent. The social media company's data centres accounted for a staggering 95 percent of the 2.46 million megawatts hours of energy consumed by Facebook throughout 2017. However, at the time, Facebook claimed it was 51 percent renewable and the company has since made significant investments in wind and solar energy, announcing in June 2019 its plan to build the largest North American solar farm in West Texas.

The social networking giant is not the only technology company claiming to have gone beyond data centre self-sufficiency, with Swedish data centre startup EcoDataCenter announcing in 2015 it would build the world's first 'carbon-negative' facility. The proposed data centre would rely on wind and solar power and feed excess heat generated from servers into the municipal energy systems for nearby businesses and homes. EcoDataCenter finally opened the site in October 2018, in Falun, north of Stockholm and has succeeded in its aim to reduce the total CO₂ emissions in the energy ecosystem.

Green IT for startups and SMEs

Of course, not every organisation has the same resources as the Apples and Facebooks of this world, but non-technology behemoths can also strive to be carbon neutral.

On the east coast of Scotland, St Andrews University has a commitment to become carbon neutral. In 2016, the university commissioned a £25 million state-of-the-art biomass system and district heating network which would deliver 6,000 tonnes of carbon reduction per year. This biomass system alongside a number of other sustainability initiatives means the institution has witnessed a 16 percent reduction in its carbon emissions during 2017/2018, and 27.7 percent reduction from its baseline in 2012/13.

In its efforts to become carbon neutral by 2025, Goldsmiths University in London announced in August 2019 it would be banning the sale of beef products from its campus and placing a 10p levy on all bottled water and disposable plastic cups.

For startups and small businesses, Greenpeace's Andrew Hatton suggests putting pressure on technology providers, especially cloud giants like Amazon Web Services, asking them to commit to transparency on energy and environment performance while demanding information on the carbon footprint of cloud providers is published so startups and SMEs can achieve their green goals.

Legal expert Alistair Maughan, a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster who leads the firm's UK outsourcing and ICT contracting teams, has also suggested organisations and their IT teams ensure Green IT clauses are implemented across the web of commercial relationships – something increasingly on the agenda as the cost of energy continues to rise making the issue a significant factor in many organisations' budgets.

Open source green IT

A report from 2013 by JISC, the UK education and research sector technology specialists, found that universities and colleges spend about £147 million a year in IT-related energy costs. With a requirement for the education sectors to reduce their carbon footprint by 34 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels under the 2008 Climate Change Act, investigating carbon-neutral technology has never been more pressing.

While St Andrews University is blazing a trail with its commitment to carbon neutrality, CEO of open-source specialists Omnis-Systems, Paolo Vecchi, believes Linux-based and open-source applications and operating systems offer a route for other institutions since they consume significantly less energy.

Vecchi has noted a few instances where email, storage and web services for students have run on Linux systems while the staff and professors used Microsoft products. He said that in one case, 2,000 staff used the same amount of resources required to provide the same services to 12,000 students.

Fundamentally, green IT thinking and a carbon neutral mentality needs to be embedded as a culture and principle across entire businesses, including the supply chain – and according to Brans, if an organisation can approach becoming carbon neutral with a selfish mindset and its own interests in mind, it is far more likely to succeed.