Fighting Climate Change with ‘Ecological Workspaces’

I recently read in a survey by the Carbon Trust that 67% of UK consumers are more likely to buy a product with a low carbon footprint. Add to this the increasing levels of Climate Change awareness in general, then perhaps it’s fair to state that most people would prefer to consume IT in way that lowers environmental impact. One of the areas we can make this happen in business is by moving away from traditional desktop computing towards agile device based solutions that lower our personal carbon footprint. For now, and as one element of the research I am currently working on, I will call this the ‘Ecological Workspace’ or ‘EWS’ for short (as the IT industry loves a three letter acronym).

Here’s how it works…

Moore’s law observes that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit double every two years. By this, the founder of Intel was suggesting that processing capabilities of ‘computers’ will increase two fold every twenty four months. This theory has, with minor deviations, proven to be true and following the popularisation of personal computers in the 1980’s, businesses have been fighting to keep pace at the desktop ever since. As such, investment in desktop computers is, in most cases, a short term or tactical strategy and the hardware only remains performant in years one and two. After this, the desktops are liable for replacement from year three onwards. This race to stay productive as old computers struggle with new applications designed for faster processors has caused peaks and troughs in both business capital expenditure and employee productivity for almost forty years. Add to this the recent proliferation of a myriad of end user device options, the lure of cloud computing and a surge in security issues, it is not surprising that companies are exploring better ways of delivering an agile, scalable and secure desktop experience.

‘Secure Digital Workspaces’ from global software companies such as Citrix, meet this threefold criteria by enabling access via any device, in any location, to a workspace that mirrors the look and feel of a traditional desktop and its applications. This is achieved by delivering the image, security and processing power directly to the device from on premise, cloud or hybrid data centres via internet technologies. Adopting such an approach means that the user / company can now select user devices that suit business models and promote a work life balance that increases productivity and employee satisfaction.

As the device no longer needs to be a highly performant traditional desktop nor does it need connection to a local private network there are, perhaps not so obviously, environmental gains to be achieved too.

‘Ecological Workspaces’ Reduce Pollution

The creation and consumption of electricity represents over 60% of all CO2 emissions, a gas responsible for as much as 84% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Currently, as nations strive to abate the production of CO2, Information Technology (IT) continues to be the world’s 12th largest consumer of electricity and produces 2% of global carbon emissions. As we enter what is being termed the 4th Industrial Revolution, driven by digital transformation, IT is set to increase electrical consumption dramatically. Seeking sustainable methods of IT delivery that lower carbon footprint is essential if the IT community is to help to reduce the damage this digital revolution will have on the planet.

Low Energy Devices

As described, secure digital workspaces remove the need for intense processing, high-energy consuming desktop computers and monitors by shifting the workload back into the data centre. An ‘Ecological Workspace’ takes one-step further and rather than replacing one power hungry device for another, such as changing a desktop to a traditional laptop, it replaces the desktop computer with a low energy portable device such as a tablet, smart phone or Google Chromebook.

To highlight this, imagine a single employee using a traditional desktop computer from 9am to 5pm, Monday through to Friday. Taking into account the statutory UK 28 days paid holiday (including bank holidays), this equates to 232 working days or 1,856 active desktop hours during a working year. The average desktop (including a monitor) uses 70w of power per hour resulting in an annual electrical draw. This is equivalent to leaving a 60w lightbulb burning constantly for 90 days. A low energy device uses less than half of this, consuming an average of 33w per hour. Additionally, due to the ten-hour plus battery life, the same device will only be drawing power from the mains supply for an estimated four hours each day. This reduction in electricity consumption by using a low energy device equates to being able to switch that ethereal light bulb off after just 21 days.

Translated to carbon emissions, a low energy ‘Ecological Workspace’ device will deliver a staggering reduction of 1,656 light bulb hours of electricity per user, per year. In a company with 1,000 employees this equates to abating 73.9 metric tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e). That’s equal to stopping the carbon emissions equivalent of over 181,000 car miles every year.

Improved Carbon Life Cycle

Each year the UK disposes of over two million tonnes of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and IT is one of the main and growing sources of WEEE. All electrical and electronic equipment has a carbon footprint that stretches from manufacture to disposal. This is measured as a carbon life-cycle assessment and includes the impact of the product’s raw materials, manufacturing process, transportation emissions, power used during operation and impact from re-cycling, recovery and disposal. Adopting an ‘Ecological Workspace’ approach allows for the use of devices with a lower carbon life cycle impact. Material needed during manufacture and associated transportation emissions are reduced as the items are most often smaller in volume. Power consumption is reduced as previously described reducing associated CO2e emissions and crucially, the useful life time of the product is extended due to breaking the tie with performance at the device level. This alone minimises the need to introduce more devices more often into the supply chain, reducing the strain on Earth’s natural resources.

Low Carbon Data Centres

Encouragingly the carbon footprint reduction does not stop at the device level. When combined with locating the digital workspace management plane and a selection or all of the workloads in a highly energy efficient and low carbon cloud data centre, the now ‘Ecological Workspace’ infrastructure can deliver as much as 99% CO2 emissions reductions when compared to traditional on premise data centre operations.

The reason this is feasible is due to the fact that large scale cloud data centres are now concentrating on Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) and Carbon Usage Effectiveness (CUE).

Data centres consume up to thirty times more electricity per square foot than office space and are on track to be responsible for 18% of the global ICT carbon footprint by 2020 producing emissions of 0.257GtCO2e. The majority of traditional on premise data centres house as many as between 15-30% of servers that are powered but idle. Additionally, with almost half operating at temperatures of up to 15°F below the recommended ASHRAE limits, these non-cloud data centres are deemed to be highly energy inefficient. To address this, best practice frameworks for data centre efficiency operate in both the United States and Europe and incorporate a measurement called Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) created by The Green Grid.

PUE calculation allows for electrical efficiency to be measured by comparing the Total Facility Power and the IT Equipment Power. A PUE result of 1.0 suggests the data centre is 100% energy efficient whilst one of 1.7 suggests that the power grid is having to supply 70% extra electricity to power the data centre compute, storage and networking capability than is theoretically necessary.

Studies highlight that PUE ratings for on premise data centres, range from between 2.9 and 1.7. This indicates that traditional data centres ‘waste’ between 70% and 190% of energy consumed due to inefficient operations. For several years, ‘hyperscale cloud service providers’ such as Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and Google, have examined multiple options to reduce cost in an increasingly competitive market where lowest price per Gigabyte is vital. One key area of focus has been the reduction of energy consumption. As a result, AWS data centres have already achieved an average PUE of 1.2, Google 1.16 and Microsoft 1.12. With PUE readings approaching the realms of zero waste, hyperscale service providers are now generating comparable computing capabilities with over 50% less electrical waste than standard on premise data centres. The impact is such that even Greenpeace reports recognise that this significant shift to cloud computing is playing a part in reducing the overall IT carbon emissions.

Carbon Usage Efficiency (CUE)

Whilst this ecological advantage of hosting in the cloud is considerable, PUE is only part of the story. To achieve significant CO2 emissions reductions Carbon Usage Effectiveness (CUE) must be considered. CUE is a sustainability measurement that calculates carbon per kilowatt-hour intensity for data centres, again created by The Green Grid.

Over 80% of on premise data centres continue to consume electricity created from fossil fuel, such as coal, whereas many of the hyperscale service providers have switched to predominantly renewable energy sources. As an example, Microsoft has created multiple wind farms that directly supply their cloud data centres with low carbon, renewable energy plus the company has committed that all new data centre construction is subject to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. To highlight the ecological benefits of combining renewable energy sources with electrical efficiency, it is worth examining the CO2e emissions of a standard on premise data centre versus a cloud data centre.

A 5000sqft on premise data centre with a PUE of 1.7 and relying on 100% fossil fuel (coal) derived electricity would produce (27,000kWh x 870gCO2e/kWh) 23,490tCO2e emissions. A similar hyperscale data centre with PUE of 1.1 consuming 100% clean energy source would produce (17,490kWh x 5gCO2e/kWh) 87tCO2e.

The difference between the two CO2e emissions for the data centres is 23,403tCO2e. This is the equivalent removing 5,011 cars annually from the road per data centre suggesting that an ‘Ecological Workspace’ service operated from an energy efficient and low carbon data centres will carry a far lower carbon footprint per user.

Lowering Employee Commuting Emissions

Secure Digital Workspaces enable employees to work securely from anywhere at any time. This new level of flexibility enables employees to create a work life balance that suits modern living, increases productivity and improves employee retention. One dimension of this is that staff can choose their place of work. As such, many opt to work from home on a limited number of working days. According to Global Workplace Analytics, employees embracing E-Working solutions such as digital workspaces are spending on average two days a week working away from the office. This lowered commute time is reducing transportation fuel consumption and over the course of several years (to 2030) and will contribute to an impressive 3% (0.363Gt) global emissions reduction. As an example an employee utilising an ‘Ecological Workspace’ and working from home for two days each week, during a year consisting of 47 work weeks, could reduce the number of commute journeys by 94 return trips. As the average commute journey in the UK is 7 miles, an average one thousand-user ‘Ecological workspace’ solution would prevent 1,316,000 car miles being driven every year. This is the equivalent of removing 114 cars from the UK roads every year, forever.

In this instance Corporate and Social Responsibility charters that encourage home working for the well being of the employee are, when coupled with an ‘Ecological Workspace’ approach, reducing personal and business atmospheric pollution and carbon footprint.


Whatever your views are about climate change, it is sadly a scientific fact that our atmosphere has become highly polluted due to what is termed as anthropogenic interference. This unnatural pollution is driven in the main by electricity generation, industry and transportation. Previous and current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports predict that if we simply continue regardless then by 2050, humankind will face a pivotal environmental milestone whereby this pollution will have irreversibly damaged the Earth’s atmosphere. The impact of this will be accelerated global warming and climate change. Temperatures will increase as our ecosystem struggles to release radiation through a blanket of greenhouse gases (GHG), seas will acidify as CO2 dissolves into carbonic acid, and oceans will rise as the polar caps and ice sheets melt.

Faced with this information, it is reasonable to state that we all need to investigate ways to improve our carbon footprint if we are to secure a sustainable future. Perhaps ‘Ecological Workspaces’ (or EWS for short!) are part of the answer?


About the author:

Justin Sutton-Parker, MBA, has 25 years IT industry experience, is a Director at Citrix, a post graduate PhD student with Warwick University researching Computer Science, and Non Executive Director for Environmental Research at Px3.

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