Climate change and sustainability issues for TMT

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This Practice Note looks at existing and proposed regulations affecting TMT and discusses some of the key organisations that are having an impact on industry standards. It goes on to explore the effects that technology is having on the environment and details the measures and opportunities that will likely need to be taken by industries within TMT in order to move towards a sustainable future. It provides an overview of the role that the telecoms and media sectors play when considering their impact on the environment and how they can encourage sustainable practices. It ends by highlighting how companies can approach sustainability with regard to their own policies and practices, supply chains and usage of technology.

For guidance on sustainable business, see: Sustainable business toolkit.

Many TMT businesses continue to grow, largely due to the advancement and increased accessibility of technology, the digital transformation of business and the cross-sector dominance of large tech companies.

While the continued expansion poses a threat to the environment if unchecked, the sectors that make up TMT are interestingly positioned when compared to others as they also provide many of the solutions and resources needed to combat climate change and enable sustainable practices.

Regulating TMT

TMT industries are subject to broad, cross-sector environmental legislation, both at a national and international level.

This section gives a broad overview of the international obligations under the Paris Agreement, particularly in respect of the provision of technical assistance and knowledge relating to climate technologies to developing countries.

The section then goes on to consider the UK’s relevant legislation and regulations, namely the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA 2008) and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013 (WEEE 2013), SI 2013/3113, and how they impact on the production of tech across the entirety of its lifecycle. In doing so it also covers the proposed Environmental Bill and discusses how it is likely to impact the regulatory requirements of producers and distributors of such products in the future.

The Paris Agreement

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was set up in response to global warming in 1992 and is made up of 197 parties (including the UK). Its objective is to stabilise emission concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent the worst impacts of man-made climate change.

For more information, see Practice Note: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992—snapshot.

In 2015 the parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change which requires its signatory parties to limit global warming to well below 2°C and ideally pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

It requires that countries submit their plans for climate action (known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs)), through which countries communicate the actions they will take to reduce their emissions in order to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, as well as the actions they will take to build resilience to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures.

There are no specific legally binding emissions targets but, instead, Article 4(2) mandates that parties ‘shall pursue domestic mitigation measures’ with the aim of achieving the objectives of their NDCs. To ensure this is achieved the agreement provides for a review mechanism and requires parties to communicate their NDCs every five years, through which they are expected to show an increasing level of ambition.

For more information, see Practice Notes: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992—snapshot and The Paris Agreement 2015—snapshot.

The Technology Mechanism

Article 10 of the Paris Agreement establishes the parties’ ‘long-term vision on the importance of fully realising technology development and transfer in order to improve resilience to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’ and places an emphasis on strengthening co-operative action between nations.

Under this article it was agreed that the Technology Mechanism (implemented under the UNFCCC at the 2010 UN Climate Conference as an instrument to aid developing countries in accessing technologies that assist in mitigating the effects of climate change) would serve the agreement in realising these aims and to further aid the acceleration, encouragement and enablement of innovation.

Additionally, the agreement states that the Financial Mechanism of the Convention would provide support for collaborative approaches to research and development and facilitating access to technology, particularly for the early stages of the technology cycle and to developing country parties.

The Technology Mechanism is made up of two arms. The Technology Executive Committee serves as the mechanism’s policy arm. It analyses issues and provides policy recommendations that support country efforts to enhance climate technology development and transfer. The committee consists of 20 technology experts representing both developed and developing countries.

The Climate Technology Centre and Network, hosted by the UN environment programme, is the implementing arm of the mechanism. It accelerates the development and transfer of technologies through three services:

  1. providing free technical assistance at the request of developing countries on technology issues
  2. creating access to information and knowledge on climate technologies
  3. nurturing collaboration among climate technology stakeholders via its network of regional and sectoral experts

An example of the mechanism’s work is the development of agrometeorological information tools and processes for farmers in Mali. The project aims to improve data availability, climate forecasting, early warning systems and adaptation planning in order to support decision making and increase productivity in Mali’s agricultural sector.

The Climate Change Act 2008

In the UK, CCA 2008 established a legally binding target for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. This was later amended by the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019, SI 2019/1056, which came into force on 27 June 2019 and amended the legally binding target to 100% or net zero. This means the UK has a legally binding target to reduce its GHG emissions by at least 100% from 1990 levels by 2050.

CCA 2008 also created a system of five-yearly carbon budgets, through which limits are set with a view to meeting both the overall 2050 target and the UK’s international obligations, such as the Paris Agreement.

For more information, see Practice Note: Climate change—emissions targets, carbon budgets and net zero.

The Environment Bill

In 2018, the UK government published its 25 Year Environment Plan policy paper (25 YEP) for England (with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland setting their own similar policies). The 25 YEP sets out the government’s goals and plans to improve the environment for the next generation, with one of the goals focusing on using natural resources in more sustainable and efficient ways. For more information, see Practice Note: 25 Year Environment Plan Tracker.

The UK’s subsequent adoption of the Circular Economy Package (CEP) aligns with this strategy and provides a revised legislative framework for the reduction of waste while establishing a long-term path for waste management and recycling. It is worth noting that the UK’s CEP is largely the same as the Circular Economy Action Plan adopted by the EU in 2020, as the UK maintained its commitment to introducing circular economy measures post-Brexit. For more information, see Practice Note: Waste—the circular economy.

The UK’s proposed Environment Bill has also been developed alongside the 25 YEP. It covers waste and resource efficiency and picks up on many of the areas the government set out in its Resource and waste strategy. The measures aim to move the economy away from a ‘take, make, use, throw’ system to a more circular economic model, where resources are kept in use for longer and their maximum value is extracted.

The Environment Bill encourages the ‘polluter pays’ principle and aims to arm the UK governments with the tools they require to necessitate that producers pay the full net cost of managing their products’ lifecycles, all the way to end of life. This in turn is hoped to incentivise businesses to design their products with sustainability in mind. The legislation is expected to come into force in Autumn 2021. See: LNB News 11/05/2021 73.

For more information, see Practice Notes: Environment Bill—snapshot and Environment Act 2021—developments.

Resource efficiency

The draft legislation would enable the UK governments to both create regulations on the resource efficiency requirements of specific products and mandate the provision of resource efficiency information from the producers of such products to regulators and consumers.

The legislation lists examples such requirements could relate to, including:

  1. aspects of the product’s design which affect its expected life
  2. the availability or cost of component parts, tools, or anything else
  3. required to repair or maintain the product
  4. whether the product can be upgraded, and the availability or cost of upgrades
  5. the ways in which the product can be disposed of at the end of its life (including whether and to what extent it can be recycled, and whether materials used in it can be extracted and reused or recycled)
  6. the materials from which the product is manufactured
  7. the techniques used in its manufacture
  8. the resources consumed during its production or use
  9. the pollutants released or emitted at any stage of the product’s production, use or disposal

It also includes within its definition any requirements which ‘are relevant to the product’s impact on the natural environment’, allowing for a broader interpretation beyond the list given.

While the draft legislation does not go as far as creating any specific regulations in relation to any of the sectors within TMT, it is easy to see how these conferred powers may be used to regulate the manufacturing of the sectors’ products, for example, smart devices, telecoms infrastructure and IT equipment.

Deposit schemes

The Environment Bill will also grant the UK governments the power to establish deposit schemes for the purpose of ‘sustaining, promoting or securing an increase in the recycling or reuse of materials’. Such schemes would work by refunding a predetermined amount (which would likely be included within its cost) to the individual or business that purchased the ‘deposit item’, after it is returned.

Deposit schemes will help transition the shift towards a more circular economy, as deposited products could be resold or repurposed, or their materials retrieved and reused in the manufacturing of new products. It is likely these types of schemes will be used to encourage the recycling of various electronic devices, including mobile phones and commercial IT equipment.

Planned obsolescence

The Ecodesign for Energy-Related Products and Energy Information Regulations 2021, SI 2021/745 include measures to improve minimum energy performance standards and material efficiency with regard to a number of electronic products (including televisions). These include the requirement that, in order to facilitate repairs, product manufacturers make available to end users and repairers certain spare parts and maintenance information.

As part of a consultation for the regulations, stakeholders were asked about their views in relation to future product policy. Responses noted that future ecodesign and energy labelling requirements should consider how to encourage the uptake of smart appliances. It was suggested that ecodesign requirements on resource use should aim to improve the ease of product disassembly (for repairability and material recovery) and should be expanded to a greater number of products.

For further information on ecodesign and energy labelling in the UK, see Practice Notes:

  1. Ecodesign of products—regulation and enforcement
  2. Mandatory energy labelling
  3. Voluntary energy labelling

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013

To combat the rising amount of waste IT equipment that is incinerated or sent to landfill sites various measures were introduced in WEEE 2013, SI 2013/3113, which broadly work to encourage the recovery, reuse and recycling of IT products and their components.

WEEE 2013 covers any electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) that has been placed on the UK market that has become waste, so long as it fits within the broad definition given. Under the regulations, EEE means any equipment which is:

  1. dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields to work properly
  2. used for generating, transferring and measuring electric currents and electromagnetic fields
  3. designed for use with a voltage rating 1,000 volts or less for alternating current, and 1,500 volts or less for direct current

Many products produced by TMT industries therefore fall within the scope of these regulations, and those producing such products must ensure they adhere to the required standards. Regulators are often strict with enforcing obligations, and those found guilty of non-compliance are liable to fines.

There are a number of exemptions, however. Under WEEE 2013, a piece of equipment that is designed for and installed inside another type of equipment, and that can only function within that overall equipment, will be considered a part of that equipment. Such subsidiary equipment is therefore exempt from WEEE 2013. The usual example is a satellite navigation system installed within a car, but it would also include internet of things (IoT) devices and other technologies (eg Alexa installed within a TV).

References:

Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) covered by the WEEE Regulations

Producer obligations

WEEE 2013 imposes obligations on producers who manufacture and place on the UK market more than 5 tonnes of EEE.

Obligations include:

  • a requirement to join a Producer Compliance Scheme (PCS). This action registers producers with the appropriate regulator and helps the producer to fulfil its obligations based on the information it provides to the PCS, such as the amount of EEE placed on the market in the UK by them and the categories of products such EEE falls under:
      • small producers that place less than 5 tonnes of EEE on the UK market in a compliance year are not required to join a PCS and instead must register with the Environment Agency directly
  • responsibility for financing the costs of the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal of waste EEE (WEEE):
    • regulators will base collection targets on the information received about the amount of EEE placed on the market by the producer and targets set by the Secretary of State
  • maintaining records in writing of the amount of tonnes of EEE that is placed on the market within each category. Records must be maintained for four years minimum
  • ensuring that each item of EEE placed on the market is marked with the crossed out wheeled bin symbol in a visible, legible and indelible form. This symbol indicates that the EEE should be taken to a separate collection at the end of its working life
  • ensuring that specific design features or manufacturing processes do not prevent WEEE from being reused, unless it provides an overriding advantage with regard to the protection of the environment or safety

For further information, see Practice Note: WEEE—producer obligations.

Distributor obligations

WEEE 2013 defines a distributor as ‘any person in the supply chain who makes an item of EEE available on the market’. While this definition includes all distributors within the supply chain, only distributors who supply EEE to household end users have ‘take-back’ obligations (the requirement to offer free take back on WEEE), as such obligations do not apply to non-household WEEE. Take-back obligations can be fulfilled in three ways:

  • by joining the distributor take-back scheme—a scheme that assists in funding a network of collection facilities where consumers can dispose of their household WEEE free of charge
  • by offering in-store take back
  • by providing an alternative free take-back service. This alternative must be, at a minimum, as effective as the previous two options

Distributors are also required to provide end users with specific information, such as how their take-back schemes work and the underlying importance of the initiatives. Businesses often make information regarding their policies and approach to compliance available on their websites to cover this obligation.

Under WEEE 2013, any distributors supplying new EEE are obligated to accept WEEE for free from any customers they supply with like-for-like products. Additionally, distributors who supply WEEE from retail premises larger than 400 m2 must provide for the collection of very small WEEE (eg mobile phones) within those premises free of charge to end users of EEE, with no obligation for them to buy EEE of an equivalent type.

For further information, see Practice Note: WEEE—distributor obligations.

Industry standards and initiatives

At present there is no legislation relating specifically to the industries within TMT and their impact on global warming. However, industry guidance and voluntary initiatives have been increasing, meaning sector-specific legislation could eventually appear due to the mounting pressure as well as the increasing expectations of customers and stakeholders concerned with environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations.

Science-based targets

The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) provides companies with a clearly defined pathway to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals (ie limiting global warming to well below 2°C and, ideally, 1.5°C). It is a scheme that can be used by companies to ensure that their targets are considered ‘science based’ by certifying that their proposed targets are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.

Businesses initially commit to setting a science-based target, at which point their target goes through a process where it is developed further and scrutinised so as to be in line with the SBTi’s criteria, after which it is validated. When this process is complete, it is then required that targets be reported on and tracked annually.

References:

SBTi Criteria and Recommendations

In setting a target, businesses can benefit from support from the SBTi’s technical experts and are able to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability to environmentally conscious consumers, clients and business partners by highlighting their involvement in the initiative.

An ICT sectoral target-setting approach has been developed through a collaboration between the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), the GSMA, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the SBTi.

References:

Setting Climate Targets

Noting the complexities that the ICT sector presents in terms of emissions reductions, guidance was published to aid ICT companies (specifically mobile network operators (MNOs), fixed networks operators and data centre operators) in setting science-based emissions reduction targets.

References:

Guidance for ICT companies setting science based targets

For the period of 2020–30, the guidance states that the main strategy to decarbonise the ICT sector in line with the Paris Agreement’s trajectories must be simultaneous action in the following fields:

  • continued implementation of energy efficiency plans
  • switch to renewable/low-carbon electricity supply
  • encouragement of carbon consciousness among end users

The BSR

The Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) is an organisation of sustainable business experts that works with a global network of companies to help build a more sustainable world. The BSR champions the need to shift to a net zero economy and works by engaging with its member companies and other partners (such as NGOs and governments) to develop strategies and action initiatives that bring sustainable practices to the forefront of business. Examples of its work and initiatives include:

GeSI

The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) brings together ICT companies, international organisations and NGOs from around the world. It aims to promote responsible business and digital sustainability.

GeSi’s Digital with Purpose movement asks participating companies to make four ‘universal commitments’ in order to match the ambitions of its Digital with Purpose report:

  • to recommit to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • to state their intended actions in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (including a specific commitment to reduce GHGs by 50% by 2030)
  • to commit to transparency and collaboration
  • to harness the power of digital technologies to support these commitments

Technology and sustainability

The advancement of technology presents both opportunities that can aid the global effort in tackling climate change and unsustainable practices, as well as new issues that, if left unchecked, could have serious consequences for the environment. For example, the International Energy Agency estimated that in 2019, global data centre electricity demands were around 200 TWh (which equates to roughly 0.8% of the global electricity demand) and that, between February and mid-April 2020, global internet traffic increased by 40% due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

While the digital transformation that technology provides has the effect of reducing the emissions that other sectors produce (eg by minimising the need for travel through the availability of online conferencing, or the use of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to increase efficiency and reduce energy consumption), the issue of energy usage and manufacturing emissions is shifted to the technology sector.

The increases in efficiency that have come with every new generation of technology have, so far, kept emission increases at a relatively manageable level. However, various industry bodies are reporting that this effect is now plateauing. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), for example, reported in its summary report on its Sustainability ENG Workshops that the efficiency gains in the ICT sector are ‘failing to keep track with the sector’s rapid growth’, with the demand for new technologies having a large impact. Quick advancements in renewable energy and carbon capture technology are therefore needed.

References:

Summary Report on BEREC Sustainability ENG Workshops: Sustainability within the digital sector—What is the role of BEREC?

Cloud computing and data storage centres

The adoption of cloud computing as a mainstream IT solution provides businesses with an efficient and scalable alternative to older IT practices, such as using fixed on-site technology for data storage and working with hardcopy documents.

A cloud storage centre poses a more sustainable alternative to businesses individually using their own energy-consuming practices, as the consolidation of data in a central location allows computing resources to be shared efficiently and allocated as needed.

Cloud storage centres are more flexible than on-site data centres, and allow users to scale up, down and out (ie adding to the overall machines within a computing environment, as opposed to just increasing the power of the existing machines) quickly in response to user demands (which is known as ‘hyperscale’). This means that, in theory, surplus energy will not be used as the energy expended by the data centres will be proportionate to its usage.

Conversely, on-site storage centres are often inefficient and not used to their maximum capacity, and their lack of scalability means that the energy required to run such centres can be disproportionate to usage.

Geographic redundancy

Cloud computing enables geographic redundancy, meaning that data loss is far less likely in the event of a natural disaster. Connected data centres are spread out over multiple geographical locations in order to provide resiliency. If one of these data centres were to face a network outage, operation could be transferred to another, elsewhere.

In a period where natural disasters and extreme weather conditions are becoming increasingly common due to the effects of global warming, geographic redundancy offers a safeguard to users and their data.

Remote working

Cloud computing is an enabler of remote working, as users can access their company’s work network from home. While also increasing efficiency and accessibility, it has the additional effect of reducing the need for travel and provides employers with the opportunity to downscale their office spaces, both of which lead to a decrease in carbon emissions.

Energy output and cooling requirements

While the shift to cloud computing reduces the energy consumption of businesses and provides means of ensuring that the energy that is consumed is done so efficiently, the size of these centres means that they still have significant energy demands.

Data centres generate so much heat that they require extensive cooling systems. Research suggests that around 40% of the energy used by these centres can be on cooling. With the demand for services that require data centres and cloud computing continuing to grow this energy consumption is only set to increase. To mitigate this issue data centres are being constructed in colder climates to benefit from the natural heat transfer they provide and save on energy usage. Examples of this include the Arctic Circle Data Centre, set up in Norway, and a prototype underwater data centre constructed by Microsoft. These centres create a new issue, however, as the heat they expel is transferred to the surrounding environments which is likely to alter the ecosystems found within them and contribute to rising temperatures.

Data protection laws that restrict the transfer of personal data beyond national borders may be another barrier for these types of centres, as customers may need to use data centres that are physically located within their jurisdictions.

See, for example, Practice Note: UK GDPR—transfers of personal data internationally and to international organisations.

Renewable energy and carbon capture

The widespread adoption of renewable energy and carbon capture storage solutions (CCS) would help solve the energy consumption issues that data centres present. If this is to be achieved, focus should be placed on increasing the efficiency of these advancements so that they are able keep up with the growing demand for cloud computing and data storage centres.

CCS enable the safe capture of waste carbon dioxide at the source of the emissions, and then either use or permanently store the captured carbon dioxide, preventing the captured carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

However, the type of technological solutions that would be required to mitigate the carbon emissions produced are still within very early stages of development (or yet to even exist). Focus is therefore being placed by many of the large tech companies on funding nature-based solutions, such as reforestation projects, while the technology is being developed. Microsoft, for example, had pledged to aim its focus on nature-based solutions at present but has stated that it will shift to tech-based solutions as and when they become more viable.

References:

Microsoft will be carbon negative by 2030

Businesses and consumers are starting to take these matters into consideration when selecting their suppliers and there is an increased demand for transparency with regard to a supplier’s renewable energy commitments. With several of the top cloud computing companies being some of the largest tech companies globally (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba and IBM), pressure from consumers to achieve carbon neutrality is key to enabling the increased development of renewable energy and CCS.

Consumer technology

As technology advances, products such as smart devices are becoming more affordable and accessible to consumers. It was estimated that in 2021 there were 6.3 billion smart phone users globally.

References:

Number of smartphone users from 2016 to 2021

While these technologies have had a positive impact on society in terms of connectivity and efficiency, they present a number of problems when considering their impact on the environment.

Consumerism and mass consumption

At the heart of the issues that consumer tech presents are mass consumption and disposability. The period of time in which consumers own a particular device is low, even if the device itself could continue to function well for a much longer period.

This issue is compounded by the speed at which new models of device are released (eg Apple and Samsung release new models of phone each year), as consumers often want the latest version, which results in older products being viewed as ‘outdated’ irrespective of their usability. This consumer behaviour is prevalent, and a 2020 YouGov poll revealed that around half of both mobile phone and tablet users in the UK would rather buy a new device if the one they had stopped working, than attempt to have it repaired.

Producers of consumer tech have often designed their products with future obsolescence in mind. Smart phones have become more fragile in their designs, software updates often leave older versions of devices unusable and expensive internal materials make repairing options undesirable—all of which adds to the continued mass consumption of consumer tech.

It is the combination of mass consumption and disposability that makes the consumer tech industry particularly concerning in terms of its climate impact. Low-cost, energy-intensive manufacturing, fragile designs and a lack of specific regulation have opened this sector up to allegations that its current practices are not sustainable in the longer term without serious environmental harm.

Materials and production

Many of the materials used to manufacture consumer tech are rare, complex to extract as raw materials or both. Despite this, recycling of disused products is not common practice.

Precious elements including silver, gold, lithium and cobalt are frequently used in wiring or batteries. The rare-earth elements (known as such due to their expensive extraction requirements and not their rarity), such as lanthanum and yttrium, are also used in the production of many smart devices and electronics. The use of these materials on a mass scale poses several problems, which are intensified by the fact many of these elements are becoming ‘endangered’ due to the unsustainable nature of their mining and the subsequent lack of product recycling by consumers.

For more information, see Practice Note: Mining—environmental, health and safety (EHS) issues.

Mining and the environment

The mines where these elements are found often pose an issue. Many of the active rare-earth element mines are situated in China (with research estimating it accounts for around 80% of rare earth production), where adequate environmental safeguards have not been enforced historically. The primary extraction methods used by Chinese companies to mine these elements are harmful to the environment and require practices in which chemicals are pumped into the earth to separate out the required elements.

These processes can create air pollution, cause ground erosion and have the potential to leach into groundwater and contaminate water supplies. Almost all rare earth ores also contain the radioactive elements thorium and uranium and so are hazardous to human health as well.

Despite there being less harmful extraction processes available and large element deposits in other parts of the world (including Brazil, Vietnam and Russia), companies have enabled China’s dominance by seeking out the lowest-cost materials at the expense of the environment. While the Chinese government has begun to recognise the impact these mining practices have had on the environment and has both cracked down on illegal/smaller mining operations and implemented tougher regulations, lasting damage has already occurred. Many rural farms and villages have been decimated by these mines over the past decades. For example, in the region surrounding a 48 km2 mine operated by the town of Baotou, the wastewater has polluted the surrounding groundwater which has led to crop failures, the displacement of farming communities and high incidence of cancer and respiratory diseases.

References:

Earthworks: Responsible minerals sourcing for renewable energy

Green Conflict Minerals: 4.2 Rare Earths in China

It is likely that China’s domination of the rare earth market will begin to decline, as new mines are being set up around the globe which will enable other players to enter the market. For example, there are large mining projects located in Australia, Greenland and Canada—all of which have clear sustainability policies and practices.

Mining and human rights

The mining of cobalt, which is widely used for batteries, also presents issues for humanitarian reasons. Around 60% of the cobalt used across the globe is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with around 20% of that being produced through ‘artisanal’ and small-scale mines (ASM). These mines are unregulated, provide little or no safety protection and often draw in the use of child labour and violent conflict. As the demand for cobalt increases, so do these practices, and this problem is only set to increase further with the continued expansion of products that require batteries, eg electric vehicles.

References:

Green Conflict Minerals: 4.1 Cobalt in the DRC

However, the solution cannot be simply to place an embargo on ASM, as many people living in extreme poverty rely on the income these mines provide to survive, and the production of other cobalt-exporting countries cannot meet the supply demands. The issue is made even more complex by the fact that the processing of cobalt is predominantly carried out in other countries, meaning that tracking and tracing ASM cobalt is often very challenging.

The World Economic Forum has advocated that ASM formalisation projects are a viable solution to protect human rights, as the few projects that already exist in the DRC have established rules for the mining sites they are connected to are defined and enforced by the project partners (which usually consist of co-operatives, mine operators and buyers of the cobalt).

References:

World Economic Forum: Making Mining Safe and Fair: Artisanal cobalt extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, White Paper, September 2020

Examples of the requirements these types of projects would provide include:

  • the development of uniform industry standards (so as to not undermine concurrent formalised projects)
  • an obligation that artisanal miners become members of a co-operative in order to engage in legal mining activities
  • the preparation of at least basic infrastructure at mining sites
  • on-site compliance monitoring

There are indications that the government in the DRC is making positive steps in this area.

Responsible Minerals Initiative

Founded in 2008 by the members of the Responsible Business Alliance, the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI) is a widely used resource for companies seeking to address issues related to the responsible sourcing of minerals in their supply chains.

The initiative provides companies with tools and resources to make sourcing decisions that improve regulatory compliance and support responsible sourcing of minerals from high-risk areas. With over 400 members, including Amazon and Google, it aims to evolve global business practices to engage in responsible mineral production and sourcing, align international standards and support industry and stakeholder expectations.

The key programme of the RMI is the Responsible Minerals Assurance Process (RMAP). The RMAP takes a novel approach in helping companies make informed, responsible choices regarding the minerals used within their supply chains. It has homed in on a ‘pinch point’ in the global metal supply chain—smelters and refiners. The RMAP assesses smelter/refiner management systems and sourcing practices and validates their conformance with the set RMAP standards (which have been developed to meet various international requirements).

Smelters and refiners that participate in the RMAP are then publicly listed, enabling companies to make informed sourcing decisions. The programme specifically covers a number of minerals that are commonly used in this sector, including gold, tungsten and cobalt (through which it has deployed a monitoring programme in the DRC).

Product packaging

Consumer tech often requires a substantial amount of packaging to ensure it remains protected. Historically, much of this packaging has been made from plastic, but many companies are now seeking to reduce this.

The UK Plastics Pact, led by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), aims to make all plastic packing produced by its members either 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable and to eliminate all unnecessary single-use packaging by 2025. The pact has approximately 100 business members, representing retail, manufacturing, hospitality, the plastic supply sector, plastic recycling and resource management (representing more than 50% of plastic packaging placed on the UK market), as well as 50 supporting organisations. The pact aims to move the UK away from a linear plastics economy towards a circular system in which the value of plastic materials is captured.

Companies are also starting to reconsider what needs to be included alongside their products within their packaging. For example, Apple made a decision to no longer include power adapters alongside its new iPhones due to the high number already in circulation that often go unused. This decision has reduced the carbon emissions required for each phone’s production and avoids the unnecessary use of precious materials. It also reduces iPhone packaging size, which in turn allows for more products per shipment, theoretically reducing the number of shipments required overall.

References:

Apple 2021 Progress Report

Sustainable supply chains

Sustainable supply chain management involves integrating environmentally viable practices into the complete supply chain lifecycle—from product development, material extraction, manufacturing and packaging to distribution, consumption and disposal.

While focus is often placed on the sustainability of end products, the transportation and distribution of these products pose significant problems to the environment.

This issue is not limited to TMT, and businesses across various sectors are now looking to streamline their supply chains and make them more sustainable. There are a number of ways businesses are tackling this issue, for example setting emissions targets and reporting requirements for themselves and their suppliers and the adoption of greener transportation methods like electric or biofuel vehicles.

For further information, see Practice Note: Supply chain sustainability.

Digitalisation of supply chains

Through the digitalisation of supply chains, industries within TMT are able to provide solutions that can help solve some of the problems many supply chains pose. These solutions can range from simple process changes, to the adoption of new technologies, for example:

  • the removal of manual and paper processes, such as the adoption of digital contracts
  • cloud-based supply chain collaboration networks, through which multiple parties throughout a supply chain can collaborate with each other and access uploaded data that is useful for the supply chain’s operation
  • the use of AI, machine learning and big data analytics to improve decision making in activities across the supply chain. For example, they can be used to identify mismatches between supply and demand or predict when high demand is likely, and then adjust deliveries appropriately. IBM launched an AI-based tool that enables predictive weather-based business forecasting which in turn allows businesses to adjust prices, reduce waste and increase productivity. Applications for such technology include the introduction of seasonal products (eg clothing or food) to the market and predicting the attendance of entertainment venues
  • the use of IoT devices. These can be used to carry out activities such as monitoring stock levels or assessing product quality/condition
  • automated vehicles can be used in warehouses to optimise the speed and distance of the routes taken when transporting products

These examples all provide means of making supply chains run more efficiently and cost-effectively, which has the consequence of saving on energy, materials, transportation, storage needs and waste.

The impact of large tech companies

Owing to industry and consumer pressure, as well as what they deem to be their own moral obligations, many of the large tech companies have made climate change and sustainability-related pledges and commitments.

A summary of a number of these commitments are included in the table below.

Company

Carbon pledge

SBTi commitments

Examples of other initiatives and commitments

Amazon

Net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 across its business

Committed

—launched the Climate Pledge Fund with an initial investment of US$2bn to support the development of sustainable and decarbonising technologies and services

—launched its Shipment Zero initiative, which aims to ensure all fulfilment operations undertaken to deliver a customer’s shipment are net-zero carbon, with a goal of delivering 50% of shipments with net zero carbon by 2030

Apple

Carbon neutral for its supply chain and the entirety of its products’ lifecycle by 2030

Committed and targets set

—investment in nature-based carbon removal solutions, such as involvement in a mangrove restoration project in Colombia and a savannah conservation project in Kenya

—offers apple trade in discounts to encourage the recycling of products

—developed two robots to disassemble products and their components for reusable parts and raw materials

—set to eliminate all plastics in their packaging by 2025. In 2020 all newly released apple devices were shipped in packaging made from more than 90% recycled or responsibly sourced fibre

Facebook, Inc.

Net zero carbon emissions by 2030 for its entire value chain

Committed

—launched a number of tools to advance climate change solutions through its core products and services. For example, its Climate Conversation Map provides insights into how conversations on sustainability ‘ebb and flow throughout the world and over time’ and the rate of engagement topics received

Google (Alphabet Inc)

Carbon free by 2030 (aims to operate on carbon-free energy 24/7 by 2030)

Not yet committed

—was the first company of its size to match 100% of its annual electricity consumption with renewable energy. Has been carbon neutral for over a decade due to its renewable energy purchases and carbon-offsetting efforts. Now extending its offsets to cover all historical carbon emissions

—uses a 100% recycled aluminium alloy in its Pixel 5 phone, reducing the product’s carbon footprint by 35%

—committed to eliminating plastic from its packaging and make all packaging fully recyclable by 2025

—worked alongside the China National Institute of Standardisation (CNIS) to launch the Technical Pilot Program for China Energy Management and Performance Evaluation to help its supply chain partners in China adopt better energy management systems, track energy performance at their factories, reduce energy consumption and improve operational performance

Microsoft

Carbon negative by 2030 (for both its direct emissions and entire supply and value chain)

Committed and targets set

—plans to remove all historical carbon emissions by 2050 through the development of negative emission technologies, such as afforestation and reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture

—committed US$1bn to its climate innovation fund which will be used to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies

—uses an internal carbon fee to tax its internal divisions’ emissions. The funds made through this are used to pay for sustainability improvements

—made a zero waste pledge for its direct operations, products and packaging by 2030

Telecommunications and sustainability

The telecoms sector specifically presents a complex situation when considering sustainability. While the infrastructure and technology it requires faces the same challenges as other sectors in terms of energy consumption, the enabling power that the sector has to offer in terms of its potential to aid other sectors in reducing their emissions is important. A fine line therefore presents itself and efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the telecoms sector must be weighed up against its benefits to other sectors.

Telecommunication networks and communication

The enablement of virtual communication through telecoms networks has aided businesses across the sectors to lower their carbon emissions through an increasing shift to remote working.

Increases in the efficiency of telecoms networks through technological developments such as 5G and fibre-optic broadband, as well as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, have further increased the speed of mass digital transformation.

Infrastructure sharing

Certain industries within the telecoms sector, though not specifically for the purpose of sustainability, have already taken actions that have the positive consequence of reducing energy usage.

MNOs in the UK share their network infrastructure. While the level of infrastructure sharing varies, the four largest MNOs in the UK all have network sharing arrangements (between Vodafone and O2/Telefonica, and EE and Three, respectively), and a network-sharing initiative for coverage in rural areas between all four is also underway. For further information, see Practice Note: Mobile infrastructure sharing in the UK.

Sharing this type of infrastructure is beneficial to the environment as where only one site is required to run the services for two MNOs, the energy requirements are inevitably reduced. Similarly, the manufacturing requirements, as well as the materials needed (which includes rare-earth elements and precious metals), are also reduced, along with the infrastructure’s maintenance, repair and replacement.

Impact of new technologies on telecoms

An issue that presents itself for the telecoms industry is the arrival of new technologies, particularly IoT devices and smart systems (eg for heating, lighting, alarms etc), that require access to the internet to function.

In a summary report published by BEREC, it was stated that while over the past couple of decades internet traffic has risen significantly, the energy consumption by data centres and communications networks has only increased moderately. This has been due to the high efficiency gains of each new generation of technology.

References:

Summary Report on BEREC Sustainability ENG Workshops: Sustainability within the digital sector—What is the role of BEREC?

However, the report states that the situation is now changing, and that the efficiency gains may not be able to keep up with the growth of the sector. This is largely due to the accelerating demands for data and new technologies, and the subsequent creation of a ‘rebound effect’ (ie where the savings from energy efficiency are cancelled out by a change in consumer behaviour that has been brought on by the development of a new technology). To counter this effect the report states that rapid progress on renewable energy adoption and innovation is needed.

Helping to achieve this, the GSMA has developed a Climate Action Toolkit for mobile operators, which provides guidance on the pathway to decarbonisation, such as helping with management of individual climate risks and calculating carbon reduction targets. The GSMA stated in its 2021 Mobile Net Zero Report that, as of April 2021, operators covering 50% of global mobile connections and 65% of industry revenues have now committed to science-based targets, and a significant proportion of operators have also committed to net zero targets by 2050 or sooner.

Looking at 5G, the GSMA reported that while its roll-out will create upward pressure on operators’ energy usage, the data being transferred will use up to 90% less energy. The use of AI to power down networks during quiet periods and the retirement of legacy equipment will also help avoid significant increases in energy consumption. Similarly with broadband, it is the older, copper infrastructure that consumes the most energy, and therefore the ongoing shift to fibre-optic will, in principle, also use less energy. When this is coupled with the shift to renewable energy, the outlook begins to appear more positive.

References:

Mobile Net Zero—State of the Industry on Climate Action 2021

Satellites

Satellites pose an opportunity with regard to monitoring emissions and their environmental impacts.

In a project carried out by the Environment Agency it was found that satellite data could provide information on some regulated activities with regard to their emissions in the UK. This included monthly and seasonal variations in measured ammonia over the whole of the UK and elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide around three large industrial emitters.

References:

Satellite measurements of air quality and greenhouse gases: application to regulatory activities

While there were some limitations, such as the failure to identify elevated levels of methane from landfills because of their relatively low rate of emissions, it has established the agency’s interest in exploring the area further.

Satellites are being used to track and monitor the more physically visible causes and impacts of climate change. Satellite remote sensing enables the collection of data and information regarding the earth’s surface, oceans and atmosphere, as well as weather phenomenon, in a timely and accurate manner. This can be coupled with the deployment of localised technology, such as drones, to provide in-situ high-resolution data that can be collected in real time.

References:

Climate-ADAPT: Use of remote sensing in climate change adaptation

The EU’s Earth Observation Programme, Copernicus, is used to collect data from multiple sources, including earth observation satellites. It processes the data and provides information that addresses six thematic areas: land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency management and security. This information provides a vital resource for monitoring the impacts of global warming and other environmental concerns, such as deforestation.

Looking specifically to the effects of global warming, these types of satellites can also be used for improving warning times and preparedness in potential disaster situations such as flooding, forest fires and droughts. Not only can this be used to prevent loss of life, but also to divert supply chain routes and predict when infrastructure will be damaged/destroyed in order to support mitigation measures.

References:

Climate-ADAPT: Establishment of early warning systems

Media and sustainability

While the media industry’s impact on the climate may not be as apparent as other industries within TMT, there are still a number of issues to consider.

TV and film content

The environmental impacts caused by the media industry extends beyond the production of content to the entirety of their supply and value chains, including the downstream emissions of the digital services through which their content is supplied.

Downstream emissions are of particular concern due to the increasing consumption of digital services and content, the quick turnover of the technology through which media services are delivered (ie televisions, laptops and mobile devices) and the expansive delivery networks through which media content passes in order to reach consumers.

Many of the large media companies present in the UK (including the BBC, Sky and Netflix) are already looking at tackling these issues. This has led to the separate development of two tools, both of which aim to help media companies calculate their carbon footprint.

The first, developed by albert (an industry-funded environmental organisation set up by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) focused on film and TV production), is a calculator that can be used to predict and measure a production’s carbon footprint from pre- to post-production.

References:

albert: Production Tools

Albert also offers ‘Sustainable Production Certification’, whereby companies that successfully implement sustainable production techniques where possible, and offset their carbon emissions where they are not, are awarded a ranked certification level and given the use of the albert sustainable production logo for their credits.

The second tool, DIMPACT, has been developed as part of collaborative project between the University of Bristol and some of the UK’s largest media companies. It aims to provide media companies with a tool to calculate the carbon emissions of the downstream value chain of their digital media content and highlight emissions hotspots within these chains.

Many of the big players in the UK media industry have also acknowledged their role in promoting sustainability and climate change activism through their content. In 2019, albert launched ‘Planet Placement’, which aims to highlight the environment and sustainable practices in on-screen content. The initiative aims to do this by encouraging content creators to embed sustainability into their content by raising awareness of current environmental trends and issues in ways that inspire audiences to take action, and by normalising sustainable behaviours on-screen. Examples of this include vegan week on the Great British Bake Off and the placement of reusable water bottles within the Love Island villa.

References:

albert: Raise the issues

albert: Show the actions

albert: Case studies

Social media

While social media can be used to promote sustainability, it also poses a significant problem when considering how it can be used to spread harmful false information and influence the opinions of those it reaches.

Some platforms are looking at ways to monitor and regulate false information relating to climate change as part of their policies. Facebook announced in February 2021 that it would tag false information relating to climate change as part of a UK trial. In a similar manner to coronavirus, false information identified by Facebook’s algorithm is flagged and links out to Facebook’s ‘Climate Science Information Center’.

References:

Connecting People With Credible Climate Change Information

The role of new technologies

Technologies such as AI and machine learning are providing new tools to help counter the effects of climate change and encourage sustainable practices. The table below provides examples of some of the ways in which this technology is being utilised:

Breeze Technologies

Air quality sensors are fitted with AI and cloud technology to collect and analyse data relating to air quality in real time in order to generate hyperlocal and up-to-date air quality maps. When new air pollutants or quality changes are detected the AI will recommend the most efficient intervention.

Cloud Agronomics

Remote-sensing technology and AI are used to provide farmers with insights into their crops and soil to help lower GHG emissions and spur sustainable food production.

NCX

Aerial imagery and AI are used to survey forests and provide data on a variety of areas, such as tree species composition, fire risk assessments and habitat suitability.

The Ocean Cleanup

Machine learning is applied to identify plastic pollution in rivers and simulate how it is likely to move downstream in order to intercept before it reaches the ocean.

OceanMind

AI and satellite technology are used to detect illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. This provides authorities with information that they can use to carry out effective enforcement and increase compliance. Seafood buyers are also able to use this information to ensure they are buying from ethical supply chains.

Wild Me

Open-source platforms and AI software are accessed by conservationists to aid in population analysis of animal species and develop new insights into migratory routes and species vulnerability.

Zamba Cloud

AI is used to automatically identify animals in videos from camera trap footage. This increases the efficiency of the identification process for conservationists looking into biodiversity and habitat destruction and saves them from the manual process of sifting through hours of footage.

Law firms and sustainable practices

Sustainability is quickly becoming an area of interest that many clients consider when choosing a law firm. While clients will often seek a firm that aligns with their values, it is becoming increasingly common for them to also be bound by their own sustainability policies in terms of who they can work with. It is therefore important that law firms adopt sustainable business practices and policies in order to maintain their rosters, attract new clients and remain competitive when tendering.

The list below provides examples of how law firms can monitor, implement and use technology to develop sustainable practices:

  • undertake digital transformation:
    • offer video-conferencing/webinars in replacement of physical meetings, both internally and with external parties
    • enable home working and adopt work from home policies to reduce commuting by employees
    • adopt paper reduction systems and initiatives such as:
      • virtual data rooms
      • eDiscovery tools
      • document automation
      • eContracts/eSignatures
      • printing reduction policies
  • engage in recycling schemes for IT equipment
  • encourage sustainable practices by employees:
    • enable lawyers to capture time spent on sustainability-related initiatives and allow these hours to go towards billing targets
    • encourage energy-saving practices, eg turning off monitors when not in use
  • implement smart technology throughout offices such as smart thermostats and lighting
  • participate in carbon offsetting for any unclean energy used, eg reforestation projects
  • engage in ethical supply chain management in relation to IT suppliers
  • offer ‘green’ clauses/contracts to clients across practice areas

The Chancery Lane Project is a collaborative project made up of lawyers from around the world. It works to develop new clauses, contracts and model laws that can be used to help fight climate change through their usage. A number of their model clauses have applications for businesses within TMT and are available for free.

Suppliers

As the public continues to hold companies responsible for both their own environmental impact and that of their suppliers, sustainability and corporate responsibility have become highly important for many companies.

Companies that wish to keep the business of environmentally conscious customers (and suppliers who want to remain viable to these businesses) have recognised the need for making sustainable choices when it comes to their supply chain management and processes. This practice becomes even more key when considering aspects such as reputation management, brand image and share prices, which could be affected if a company was seen to engage with certain suppliers.

Looking to the natural benefits of cultivating a supply chain which incorporates ESG considerations, it enables better anticipation and management of risks, enhanced efficiency, improved working conditions, and protection of corporate brand and values.

References:

UN Global Compact: Supply Chain Sustainability: The Business Case

Steps to take

A number of steps can be taken by companies and suppliers, for example:

  • dentify the particular risks in a company's supply chain and establish a supplier code of conduct and internal policies based on these risks
  • require suppliers to flow down the code of conduct throughout the supply chain for maximum impact, eg through clauses in the supply agreement
  • enable traceability and visibility within supply chains through the use of technology. For example, blockchain can be used to record transactions in 'blocks' to increase the transparency of each transaction at each stage of the supply chain
  • adoption of the International Organisation for Standardisation’s (ISO) ISO 14000 series of standards. The standards provide helpful guidance on how a company can evaluate its environmental performance and impact and can be used both within a company's own operations as well as with supply chain partners
  • consult with NGOs on sustainability concerns to help establish effective programmes that can aid countering unsustainable practices within an industry, eg the ‘fair trade’ sourcing programme

For further information, see Practice Note: Supply chain sustainability.

Governance for corporate social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is defined as:

  • a company’s environmental, social and economic performance, and
  • the impacts of a company on its internal and external stakeholders

Corporate governance is the system by which companies are directed and controlled. The board of directors is responsible for the governance of a company. The shareholders’ role in governance is to appoint the directors and the auditors and to satisfy themselves that an appropriate governance structure (eg accountable and transparent) is in place.

CSR governance concerns the effective management of social and environmental risks. While directors have to run their companies profitably, they are also accountable for the impact of their actions in respect of environmental and human rights issues. These issues can pose significant risks and opportunities to company performance, as investors are increasingly concerned with ESG issues (which are interconnected to CSR), and therefore CSR performance should be appropriately incorporated into board governance in order to ensure that long-term shareholder and stakeholder interests are protected and promoted.

In-house lawyers have a role to play in this governance and should ensure directors are informed of litigation risks and their liabilities in respect of any laws relating to environmental and social issues they may be non-compliant with.

The development of an effective CSR governance framework can also help boards to ensure that CSR risks and opportunities are well managed and will help monitor and measure effectiveness and compliance.

For further information, see Practice Notes: Governance for corporate social responsibility (CSR), Responsible business, corporate social responsibility and environmental social governance—a guide for companies and Voluntary environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting.