The first step in climate-positive product management is to level up our understanding. We don’t know what we don’t know and, although this is an emerging area of expertise, a little goes a long way. The name of the game is to avoid contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. More specifically, to ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns by reducing e-waste – electronic and electrical equipment waste – and the consumption of energy generated by fossil fuels.
This is the second article in a series on climate-positive product management for software. As we discussed in the first article, you don’t have to work on a climate tech product to make a difference. Whether you are building internal solutions, dashboards for hardware, or SaaS products – this one is for you. It’s a win: win for your business and the planet because climate-positive development often translates to a better bottom line.
In this article, we explore five key concepts to unpacking carbon efficiency. There are some bonus resources at the end.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the worst of the GHGs because it stays in the atmosphere for so long (300–1000 years). And it absorbs heat while it is up there. Some other GHGs actually trap more heat than carbon for every year that they are in the atmosphere. For example, methane is 84 times more potent than CO2. Yet, methane only stays in the atmosphere for around 12 years. So, carbon has the greater impact. Solving climate change is more complex than tackling carbon (more on this below), but it is a good place to start.
You may also see reference to CO2e, which means carbon dioxide equivalent. For any quantity and type of GHG, CO2e signifies the amount of CO2 which would have the equivalent global warming impact. It is a common unit that reflects the global warming potential of different GHGs.
Software applications should be carbon efficient. That means minimizing the amount of carbon emitted per unit of work. This can be done by consuming less electricity. It is so important to build products that are:
- energy efficient – use as little energy as possible;
- low carbon intensity – use energy proportionate to performance; and
- low carbon intensity of electricity – generate lower carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed.
The first two points are relatively straightforward. The third is a little more complex. All electricity is not equal. Much of the energy needed to produce electricity still comes from fossil fuels. Especially at peak times when marginal power plants are engaged to handle demand. We can shift workloads to times or regions experiencing lower electricity demand to reduce the carbon intensity of electricity used. This is called demand shifting. It can lower the carbon intensity of products and reduce carbon by as much as 45–99%. Check out solutions like electricityMap. They provide real-time, grid-level data on the carbon intensity of electricity.
Product managers can go one step further than demand shifting. They can harness behavioral science to shape demand in carbon-aware applications.
In his book, Nudge, Richard Thaler explains that a “ choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions… people have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option”. Product managers can architect for defaults that optimize for climate-positive outcomes. Including carbon intensity. This is called demand shaping. Like demand shifting, it can help renewable energy supplies keep pace.
What might this look like? Imagine you are scheduling a webinar on Meetup. Meetup is a service used to organize online groups that host in-person and virtual events for people with similar interests. The Meetup platform could nudge you towards a time that has higher supply and lower demand. If you insist on a time of low supply, it could urge you to consider sharing a pre-recorded event. (Not currently a feature, as far as I know).
Not all emissions can be avoided. Companies can quantify their emissions using platforms like Persefoni and Watershed. Then they can seek to offset those emissions by buying carbon credits. Product managers can nudge customers into participating in those offsetting efforts. Imagine you are an eCommerce company looking to offset the emissions from shipping your products. You can nudge your consumers into buying a fraction of an offset. Patch offers APIs for that exact use case. Patch and Persefoni have partnered to make this flow seamless.
We can nudge behavior change in other areas beyond energy demand shaping and offsets. Several of the highest impact solutions to climate change need a change in behavior. For example, the reduction of food waste. A third of the world’s food is never eaten. All the land and resources used in producing that food, and the GHGs emitted, were unnecessary. What might a behavior nudge look like here? Imagine you are ordering takeout on a Friday and the food delivery company encourages you to order only what you need. They might leverage food waste data and your own behavioral patterns. It might even prompt you to make use of leftovers if you still over order. (Not currently a feature, as far as I know).
Of course, we need to weigh these considerations with usability and value risks. More on that in article # 4 of this series.
Build for existing hardware capabilities and try not to max them out! Hardware like smart phones and laptops represent a lot of embodied carbon. Maxing them out accelerates consumer purchasing behavior and contributes to e-waste. We threw away 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019. There is some overlap with carbon efficiency and intensity, which lengthen hardware lifespan. Software should make hardware work proportionate to performance requirements. For example, idling into low-throughput standby mode.
Avoid planned obsolescence and related business models at all costs! Planned obsolescence is the result of strategies for making a product undesirable, useless, and / or unwanted over time. According to Durability Matters, there are four types to watch out for:
- contrived durability;
- software updates;
- perceived obsolescence; and
- prevention of repair.
Planned obsolescence results in e-waste. It can also be anti-competitive and is definitely detrimental to consumers.
At this point, you might be thinking, “OK, so it’s all about carbon and GHG emissions”. In fact, climate change is a complex problem and there is more to it. Some have warned that too singular a focus can result in “carbon tunnel vision”. Nonetheless, if you are going to start somewhere, carbon makes sense.
There are some strong principles, frameworks and emerging accreditations – especially for engineers. More formal, international standards for software may be coming in the next few years.
The Eco-Friendly Web Alliance (EFWA) provides two accreditations (eco-friendly and climate-positive) for websites. The criteria for the accreditations are excellent and EFWA verifies all accreditations. The Green Software Foundation has a working group on standards, weighted towards engineers. Some standards for environmental social governance (ESG) tackle climate-positive outcomes as a component. For example, ORB’s Responsible Business Standard.
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is working on standards for 40 sectors. The standards will describe the context for a sector, outline material topics and list relevant disclosures. They are working on the highest priority sectors first. Software is a little further down the list.
It would be great to see a set of standards or principles with a product management lens. So far, I cannot see that they exist. I would love to be fact-checked on this.