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Gov’t IT energy use falls 10%, but e-waste surges

And the MOD accounts for 36% of all gov't ICT energy consumption.

The shift to cloud is helping UK government organisations to cut the energy – and carbon – cost of their ICT, but levels of IT waste continue to grow, according to the latest Greening Government ICT report.

On average government bodies covered by the report consumed 1,546kWh per full-time equivalent staff member to power IT systems and devices, a reduction of 10.5% from 2020. The Defra report attributed this reduction to a fall of 264MWh in ICT power consumption through the shift to cloud providers – although many departments noted challenges getting accurate consumption data from hyperscalers.

It should also be noted that, of the 34 bodies which contributed data to the report – up from 25 last year – one is a significant outlier. The Ministry of Defence is responsible for 36% of all government ICT power consumption, and as of 2021 had average consumption of 2,300kWh per person, with each staff member having an average of five office IT devices.

The annual report, prepared by Defra, relies on voluntary reporting by government departments and arms-length bodies on their measurement of their ICT carbon footprint. As the figures are self-reported, and as participation in the report varies from year to year, its findings are taken as general trends, rather than hard data.

According to the Defra report, IT and networking infrastructure accounts for just under half of all government ICT energy use, with personal devices such as PCs, laptops, phones, printers and AV equipment accounting for the remainder.

“Our 2021 returns show us that network equipment consumes the most energy with 32.23% of the total energy followed by peripherals 19.21% and servers 15.93%. However, some departments mentioned difficulties in accessing the server’s data which could partly explain the 14% drop on server’s energy consumption from last year,” said the report.

See also: AWS’s new carbon footprint tool criticised

It also noted that while ICT energy consumption increased 136% between 2016 and 2021, carbon emissions from ICT use only went up 10%, due mostly to the UK’s overall electricity generation becoming less carbon-intensive, and partly to efforts to “decarbonise” the UK datacentre industry.

Data quality remains a significant issue, according to Defra, which noted “large disparities” between departments: “The results are ultimately reliant on departments providing accurate and complete returns. The importance of this data in informing government Policy requires a more formal approach and we will be seeking independent auditing of the returns from 2023 as we bake the data into the service design processes of UK Gov.”

Aside from energy consumption the report also looks at how government bodies deal with e-waste, with its findings painting a variable picture (again complicated by the increased number of bodies reporting data). In 2021 contributing government bodies generated 2,323 tonnes of ICT waste, of which 1,254 tonnes was reused, 908 tonnes recycled, 123 tonnes recovered, and 36 tonnes sent to landfill.

In 2020 reporting bodies said they generated 1,722 tonnes of ICT waste, down from 1,849 tonnes in 2019, and 1,797 tonnes in 2018.

The 2021 landfill proportion, at 1.26% of waste, was up significantly from 2020 figures (when just 0.3% of waste went to landfill), and also up from the 0.8% in 2019. In 2011, when reporting began, 6% of government ICT waste went to landfill.

“All departments contract out the [end-of-life equipment] responsibility. Many pay for recycling services then receive a rebate on value reclaimed from the raw materials and rare earth elements, some allow the waste to be taken for free leaving the contractor to reclaim any costs through resale, and some others offer a mixture of the two,” said the report.

“What is clear is that there isn’t a consistent view, or process, or guidance/policy and with the amount of waste approaching two million kilograms there is an opportunity for government to adopt a smarter, coordinated, ethical and perhaps more lucrative approach to managing its ICT lifecycle.”

The Defra government IT energy report concludes with an Annex of “strategy statements” from a wide range of government bodies and departments – which, rather unfortunately, seem to fall into the standard pattern of corporate strategy statements the world over.

In general they are vague, with few concrete figures, and many out-of-date targets included. Many cite schemes such as reducing paper usage – or sometimes just providing detailed reporting of paper usage.

With the introduction of auditing data from 2023 – we assume in time for the next-but-one edition of the Greening ICT report – it may be that government bodies are forced to account more rigorously for their IT energy and resource consumption. And given issues around greenwashing recycling schemes, along with often poor practices used to recover elements, an audit of ICT waste handling could also generate interesting information.

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