Software Developers Align to Reduce Escalating Computing Emission

Written by Matt Kropp and Niels Freier

For those not intimately involved in software development, it’s hard to grasp just how much greenhouse gas is emitted when software is built, AI models are trained, and data centers are cooled — or to grasp that these emissions are increasing at an astronomical, climate-wrecking rate. As part of our commitment to dramatically reduce the software development industry’s environmental impact, BCG GAMMA has joined the Green Software Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to build a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling, and best practices to make our industry more sustainable.

“We have the opportunity to make the software industry net zero: This is not a hard-to-abate sector,” says Matt Kropp, BCG Managing Director and Partner. “But it will take measurement, awareness, and empowerment for technologists to get there. As one of the areas of greatest innovation, technology will lead the way to addressing climate change.”

Emissions are Often Out of Sight, but Should Never Be Out of Mind

BCG estimates that datacenters now consume from 1–2% (and rising) of all the energy generated each year around the world. This is due, in part, to the rapid increase in compute-intensive tasks like AI model training. For example, the number of floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) has steadily increased by a factor of 150 since 2004, from 100 GigaFLOPS in 2004 to 15 TeraFLOPS in 2020. And according to a 2019 University of Massachusetts study, an inefficiently trained NLP model using Neural Architecture Search can emit more than 626,000 pounds of CO2 equivalent — about five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car. Clearly, the emissions produced by software development, while invisible to most end users, has a significant impact on our climate. Data engineers and data scientists must work together to reduce these emissions.

We have a strong commitment to protect our planet through our work with clients and partners, and by improving our own operations. In fact, we have committed our organization to reach Net Zero by 2030. Our CO2 AI solution is already helping our clients both measure and reduce emissions generated by a broad range of activities, including computing. Our CodeCarbon library enables our clients to track the amount of CO2 produced by the cloud or local computing resources used to train machine learning algorithms. Our clients can then use CodeCarbon to identify and implement more efficient software and ML training code.

Sustainability Requires a Change in Mindset

But the climate problem needs more than a technology. As BCG GAMMA Associate Director of AI Software Engineering Niels Freier notes, “[w]e need standards, tools, and best practices to change our mindsets as software engineers. We can start by asking ourselves questions like whether we need to deploy a large cluster to run simple mathematical operations, when maybe we could accomplish the same thing by optimizing a little bit of code.”

GAMMA is comprised of more than 500 software developers who work with clients to develop repeatable products and components. Because we work with so many Fortune 500 companies, we are in a strong position to immediately help the Green Software Foundation shape, create, evolve, and promote adoption of emission-reducing standards and tools, and develop software-development best practices.

The Solution is Both Industry-Wide and Personal

One of the major obstacles we as an industry face is lack of awareness of both the true environmental impact of our work — and of ways to mitigate this impact. We as technologists must work together to make it easier for companies to accurately measure the climate impact of the code they write, and then quickly reduce that impact. Data centers can purchase more renewable energy. Coders can write more efficient code. Tech vendors can develop more power-efficient hardware. We must clearly and quantitatively understand the full extent of our industry’s climate impact. Our planet cannot afford for us to invent the next venture, the next algorithm, the next AI use case without making the reduction of environmental harm a central tenet of the work we do.

We at BCG envision a future in which sustainability is a cornerstone of software development. By joining the Green Software Foundation, we offer our expertise to help make sustainable standards and best practices commonplace, easily accessible, and the driving force behind innovation and adoption. As part of our commitment to driving change, BCG will host two events this coming spring at our Boston and Paris offices to increase awareness of and membership in the GSF. We must work together to convince more organizations around the world that solving the climate crisis is no longer a matter of discussion. We know what needs to be done. Now we must act.

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