What’s colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, and runs the world?

The Badger has a small, framed, vintage print of the Periodic Table of Elements from his school days on his desk. It’s been a constant reminder over the years that everything in our physical world is made up of elements in this table. While at his desk listening to a rather frustrating podcast featuring a climate emissions evangelist and a business leader arguing about fossil fuels, the Badger’s eye was drawn to this trusty print. Something said in the exchange between the protagonists in the podcast made the Badger mentally tune out and recall how his school chemistry teacher used to describe elements in the Periodic Table and common chemical compounds. The trigger for this was the business leader saying that ‘fossil fuels run the world economy and hence our lives and will do so for some time yet’.

It made the Badger look at the framed print on his desk, think of his school chemistry teacher, and decide that it’s not fossil fuels but something colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, that cannot be touched or felt and that can be produced by any country, that really runs the world and its economy today, namely software! Fossil fuels and industries that heavily use them bear the brunt for most activism on reducing global carbon emissions, whereas software, which constantly proliferates at the heart of our ever-expanding digital and ICT world, seems to have a lower profile on the ‘green’ activism scale. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s drive to be carbon negative by 2030 and the existence of the Green Software Foundation, it feels like the design, development, testing, release and use of software in every facet of life deserves much more quantitative ‘green’ attention if global digitalisation and the processing and storage of huge amounts of data isn’t to become the next generation’s emissions and resource sustainability crisis.  

Some argue that software and global digitalisation can help to cut our overall global emissions by 15% or more.  However, researchers at Lancaster University suggest not only that this might not be so, but also that while ICT has driven efficiency and productivity improvements over the years, the historical evidence shows that global  emissions have still risen relentlessly.  The devil’s always in the detail, of course, and spin and greenwashing are everywhere, but surely there’s a need for much clearer, quantitative, transparent data and public awareness about emissions  relating specifically to the design, production, and use of software – that colourless, odourless, invisible, cross-border item that runs the world?

The Badger’s school chemistry teacher knew nothing about software, but they were inspiring, articulate, a creative describer of matters of importance, and a stickler for quantitative assessment. They would have applied the same approach for assessing the production and use emissions of software as if it was an element in the Periodic Table…and, perhaps, so should we.