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Defra Strategy - Harness information technology to be more sustainable

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The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently published its first Sustainable Information Technology (IT) strategy, following its well-received industry guide to help businesses achieve sustainable outcomes last October. This strategy will be a driving force in achieving the department’s vision. This is what Mattie Yeta head of sustainable ICT had to say about the strategy.

Vision and mission

Defra‘s vision is to make our air purer, water cleaner, land greener, and food more sustainable. Our 25 Year Environment Plan provides a blueprint for the environment using a different approach: one of natural capital rather than production, focused on protecting and enhancing the natural world around us.

To achieve that we must make sure we both manage the impacts of technology whilst utilising its undoubted potential for good in responding to the environmental and societal challenges we face.

Social and environmental 

We have been undertaking this journey in Defra for several years now – developing and refining how we identify, manage, and mitigate the broader impacts of our technology estate. We reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 2019/2020 with average CO2 emissions per member of staff falling by 48%. 90% of Defra’s main data centres are now using clean renewable energy. More recently, our suppliers pledged to help Defra achieve net-zero by 2025 for the services that they deliver to Defra.

The opportunities to help respond to the broader challenges of climate change are significant too. The recent World Economic Forum concluded that: “Digital technology can cut global (CO2) emissions by 15% or one-third of the 50% reduction required by 2030 through solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings, services, transportation, and traffic management.”

As an organisation, we’ve become more efficient at using resources and reducing waste by sending zero IT waste to landfill four years in a row and recovering enormous quantities of rare metals from assets that couldn’t be re-used or sold – including over half a tonne of copper, a quarter of a tonne of aluminium and half a kilogram of gold.

It is not just about the environment either – issues such as child labour, modern slavery and conflict minerals mean that we have a clear obligation to manage how our purchases and activities can impact society.

Sustainable ICT

Of course, these changes have not come about, and will not come about, through the efforts of Government alone. Our sustainable ICT strategy will shape how we work in partnership across Government, industry and other sectors to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and implement Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the government’s sustainable technology strategy.

The strategy has been designed to be used by Defra staff, and the broader Technology Sector – ICT managers and architects, ICT users, ICT suppliers and supply chains, manufacturers, disposers, recyclers and interested stakeholders.

We believe that our ambitious internal action to achieve net-zero, improve reuse, demonstrate transparency and provide net gains for the environment will drive national and international influence.

Digital transformation and maturity

Digital transformation means thinking like a sustainable development strategist. If we think about it, sustainable development is the ultimate balance. If we can master this, then we can create better ways of driving and implementing digital transformation, which yields more significant benefits.

Delivering quality IT solutions while serving the public with a more diverse range of sustainable product offerings is difficult, we must be realistic about that. But to me, that is also exciting because the prize (people, planet, and profit) is a big one. Our five strategic pillars capture this complexity and the activities we need to take to achieve our objectives:

  • Reduce and mitigate carbon emissions.
  • Efficient resource use and reduced waste.
  • Demonstrate transparency and mitigate risk.
  • Make sustainability business as usual.
  • Providing net gains for the environment.

The pillars use a bespoke five stage maturity model. The stages are identified using the following characteristics;

  •     Outlaw– companies/functions use exploitative practices and break laws and regulations (intentionally or unintentionally). The organisation flouts social and environmental standards publicly.

  •    Legal Conformance – The organisations reactively does what it's legally obligated to. However, it does follow and is conformant with laws and regulations but goes no further.

  •     Strategic– an organisation is proactive about obeying laws and regulations, engaging stakeholders, suppliers, and developing strategies which include sustainability.

  •     Metabolism– Management and leadership address better alignment strategically of sustainability efforts, doing away with silo efforts. The emphasis here is on execution rather than engagement with a much wider ecosystem. Here the ecosystem involves, for example, internal stakeholders, NGOs, government departments for better alignment.

  •     DNA– Sustainability is driven by passion and innovation, supported by resources, and mirrors CEO and organisational values. Employees not only act on it but believe in it and incorporate it into daily decisions. The organisation becomes visionary.

    A model by Mattie Yeta Head of Sustainable ICT Defra Group and PhD Researcher

So, our ambitions in this space are quite clear. We cannot achieve sustainable development, Agenda 2030, and the 25 Year Environment Plan alone. We need everyone to work together including architects, directors, managers, staff, suppliers, citizens, start-ups, innovators, NGOs, private sector, etc. All have an essential part to play. It is also crucial that we continue to remember that technology sits at the very heart of our policies and strategies.

Please read about our 2019-2020 performance in our Annual Public Accounts as reported through the National Audit Office .

Read about "Defra wins Sustainability Leader of the Year"

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Claire posted on

    This is fantastic. Thanks


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