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Decarbonizing Compute for a Zero-Emissions Future

Arm's Hilary Tam discusses the role of technology in sustainability and the importance of decarbonizing compute
The Arm Podcast · Viewpoints: Decarbonizing Compute for a Zero-Emissions Future

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The climate crisis is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. The World Economic Forum estimates that digital solutions could reduce emissions by 15% by 2030. It is therefore essential that the world’s leading technology companies focus on energy efficiency to reduce global energy consumption and help drive down carbon emissions.

Published today, Decarbonizing Compute: How the Arm Ecosystem Is Laying the Foundation for a Net-Zero Emissions Future outlines how Arm and its ecosystem are utilizing Arm IP to unlock efficiencies, maximize performance per watt and reduce emissions, wherever compute happens.

In this episode, Geof Wheelwright is joined by Hilary Tam, Arm’s Director of Sustainability Strategy. Hilary discusses how low-power compute can help ensure that the benefits of technology outweigh the environmental cost, and the role decarbonizing compute will play in moving towards a sustainable future.


Geof Wheelwright, Arm Viewpoints Host

Geof Wheelwright, Arm Viewpoints Host

Geof has worked as a journalist, author, broadcaster and consultant for more than three decades – and in a variety of technical content management, corporate communications and senior management roles at several technology companies. He has contributed to a broad range of media outlets – including The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Independent, Canada’s National Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek and a number of specialist technology industry sites (such as Geekwire) and Travel titles (including Travel + Leisure).

Hilary Tam, Director of Sustainability Strategy, Arm

Hilary Tam, Director of Sustainability Strategy, Arm

Hilary is Arm’s Sustainability Strategy Director, integrating environmental, social and governance considerations into core business to unlock value for its partners, people and the planet. Hilary has worked with the likes of Google, Vodafone, 3M to make their vision of a better and more inclusive future a reality. Hilary is a former Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner and TV presenter, and has spent the last decade empowering individuals and organizations to become a part of the solution.


Geof Wheelwright: Welcome back to Arm viewpoints podcast. Today we have a truly unique episode about the role of technology in a low carbon future. And it’s very timely in advance of the upcoming UN climate change conference in Glasgow, also known as COP26. Our episode today is called Decarbonizing Compute for a Zero-Emissions Future.

Our guest is Hillary Tam, Arm Sustainability Strategy Director. Her goal is to integrate environmental, social, and governance considerations into Arm’s core business to unlock value for its partners, people and the planet. Hillary has worked for the likes of Google, Vodafone, and 3M to make their vision of a better and more inclusive future a reality.

Hillary is a former Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, and TV presenter. And we’re delighted to have her join us here today. Welcome Hillary.

Hilary Tam: Hi Jeff. Thank you so much for having me.

Geof Wheelwright: It’s great to have you here. And I wanted to start with a question with some basics with COP26 just around the corner. We know sustainability is a hot topic right now, but it’s also something that people sometimes are a little unclear about. Can you give us a summary of what sustainability is and why it’s so important to business?

Hilary Tam: That is a great question to kick us off because sustainability is such a broad and often subjective concept that it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly sustainability looks like or means for each person. But from a business perspective, corporate sustainability is about aligning your core business strategy and objectives for long-term growth that works in harmony with people and planets.

It’s not just about feel-good philanthropic activity or managing our operational impact alone. Although both of those things are super important, especially for an organization like ours here at Arm, to ensure that we are walking the talk, but in our current reality of resource constraint and carbon intensive economies, the future of business can only be sustainable business.

So what that really requires is a holistic approach looking at why do you exist as a company? What is it that your business actually does? And what are the core competencies that can be leveraged to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges? And that’s the sweet spot, really. So every business has a unique role to play, but in identifying and focusing on what you do best and gearing that towards what you’re uniquely placed to solve, that’s how companies can unlock sustained and sustainable growth.

Not just for themselves, but throughout their entire value chain. So in our case, it’s a thriving tech ecosystem. I’m really glad that you brought up COP26 because it’s such a critical milestone as this is going to be the first time over 200 nations are coming together to reassess and raise their climate targets since the Paris climate agreement in 2015.

So this agreement set out to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees to avoid catastrophic climate change. The role of business here is to really call on governments for more ambitious and more urgent climate action, but more importantly, it’s for us to lead on the transformation that is needed and to turn this ambition into action.

Geof Wheelwright: So what’s Arm’s approach and role within sustainability?

Hilary Tam: So back to what I was saying about identifying the unique role your business has to play, Arm is in an extraordinary position in terms of where we are in the ecosystem as foundational tech IP, we are at the very start of our value chain by design.

While Arm didn’t start out 30 years ago with the climate crisis in mind, our origins and mobile has really made us leaders in low power compute. And so now knowing what we know, the question we’re exploring is how we leverage our expertise to help our partners do more work per watt and we call this part of our strategy decarbonized compute.

At the same time, we also have a strong ecosystem building capabilities. So in a world where a 3.7 billion people currently do not have access to digital technologies, which in our increasingly digital world can translate to not having access to essential basic services like healthcare, education and finance, COVID has really highlighted this problem.

Exploring how we can extend the reach of our technology through our ecosystem partners to help close the digital divide is another key focus area at Arm. The reality here is that the need to decarbonize our economies is in conflict with the computing needs and expectations of the world. Arm is uniquely placed to address this tension by driving down carbon emissions, even as we drive up connectivity, wherever compute happens.

And this approach is enabled by our people, of course, global problem solvers and other innovators out in the world using Arm-enabled tools and underpinned by trust, which is really important through our commitment to responsible technology.

Arm is also very committed to helping the world achieve the United Nations sustainable development goals. So for those who aren’t familiar, these are 17 global goals with the vision of a better future by 2030. This includes tackling things like reducing inequality, advancing affordable clean energy, solving world hunger. By connecting everyone everywhere to low-power technology, our strategy will enable progress across the board while at the same time unlocking new applications, new markets, commercial opportunities so really doing good for people and the planet is also good for business.

Geof Wheelwright: I’m really intrigued by this idea of decarbonizing compute. Maybe you can go into a bit more detail about that and kind of Arm’s ambition in that area?

Hilary Tam: Yes, it is a very big abstract vision that we are really working on to make it into a much more tangible concrete action plan. Technology is often seen as a contributor to the problem, but we know it can play a pivotal role in enabling transformative solutions. So we’ve created successive generations of compute with better efficiency than previous generations by leveraging our expertise again and low power compute to achieve more performance per watt.

As a company, we’ve already started to reduce our operational carbon impact as a part of our commitment to getting to net-zero by 2030, 20 years ahead of the Paris agreement. So from absolute reductions in the energy we consume by 20% of running our business, moving to a hundred percent renewable energy by 2023 and only investing in credible carbon sequestration projects to offset any remaining unabated carbon, all the way to engaging our suppliers, empowering our people.

All of this is a great start but where we can have a greater impact is through our products because again, we are at the very start of our value chain by design. A key area where we’re focusing on is engaging with our technical leaders on looking at broadly what exactly can we do differently and especially how can we influence our ecosystem?

So for example, improving performance per watt is an Arm’s DNA, but how do we move our ecosystem from doing more compute with the same or more energy to doing the same or less compute with reduced energy without compromising performance. How do we improve the energy profile of our own design processes?

And then are there areas outside of our products that we can be exploring where we have some influence, for example, designing with circularity in mind to help tackle the issue such as e-waste, which is massive in our industry. And with e-waste the embodied carbon associated with the materials. For me, this is really one of the greatest innovation challenges of our time: Urgent Rapid Decarbonisation.

We need to be bold and creative in our thinking and who better to turn to then the technical community here at Arm and also across our entire ecosystem. I guess we don’t really have to wait for the technology innovations of tomorrow to meet the urgency of today. The World Economic Forum estimates that digital solutions could reduce emissions by 15% by 2030 just by fine tuning existing activities and replacing traditional solutions with intelligent ones.

But even greater gains are possible with estimates citing that a further 60% reduction in global emissions can be achieved with existing and mature technologies that can be deployed right now. So circling back to the importance of reducing the carbon impact of the underlying technology and these solutions will be critical to ensure that the benefits outweigh the footprint of additional compute.

Geof Wheelwright: It sounds like there’s an opportunity here to have a huge impact. And maybe you can give me some examples of industries where decarbonizing compute will have the biggest impact?

Hilary Tam: Great, so in our latest report, Decarbonizing Compute: How the Arm ecosystem is laying the foundation for a net-zero emissions future, we explore how digital technology can be leveraged in four key sectors, energy and utilities, buildings, data centers, and transportation as all will have a major impact on emission reductions.

So I’ll just, double-click on energy and utilities as an example because the energy sector accounts for more atmospheric carbon than any other industry and will experience one of the greatest transformations over the next 30 years, especially as energy demand is expected to increase by 50% by 2050.

So finding new ways to generate store use low carbon or carbon-free electricity around the world while scaling up existing, renewable resources like wind and solar will continue to be an imperative. So I’m just going to maybe talk through three examples on the rule of technology. So the first one is around smart grids, enabling two-way communication between end users of energy and utility companies or distributed energy sources to manage energy usage more efficiently and reliably.

That’s a massive plus. They rely on predictive analytics and demand response technology to manage energy loads appropriately. Smart grids and meters can help deliver efficiency gains while intelligent algorithms and automation allows connected systems to operate with fewer errors by identifying shortages or problems quickly.

The second area is energy storage. So there’s always the question around what if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. The ability to store large amounts of energy is critical to the proliferation of renewables. And this is facilitated by systems modeling, open source data sharing platforms, funding tools, and research aggregators.

Third example would be dynamic control over energy and infrastructure systems, connected sensors and infrastructure, industry, smart cities and homes promote smart allocation of resources such as energy, water, and raw materials combined with data analysis tools such as AI. This end-to-end management increases productivity while reducing consumption, cost, waste, environmental impact.

And I think thinking about the human side of this example is around cost. I know in the UK energy costs and bills is a big concern. So really thinking about it from a practical, day-to-day example, this is one there.

And maybe I’ll just touch on data centers as they are at the heart of many of these solutions. There are nearly 230,000 data centers worldwide containing 14 million server racks so these numbers are just mind blowing and I don’t even know how to visualize that. But since 2013, operational floor space has more than doubled, data center workloads and internet traffic meanwhile, grew by eight times and 12 times respectively in the past decade.

What hasn’t grown is energy use. So data center, power usage rose only by 6% from 2010 to 2018 and currently represents 1% to 2% of global energy consumption. But without continued improvement in performance per watt, power consumption will likely rise increasing costs, emissions, and regulation, around it.

Geof Wheelwright: Those are some great examples, Hilary now with a greater awareness of, and a focus on sustainability by both organizations and society as a whole, what do you see happening in the next 10 years?

Hilary Tam: The next 10 years are going to be so critical. It’s the small window we have to reverse climate change for the survival of humanity as we know it.

And it sounds like an exaggeration, but this is the state of the world. I’m super optimistic though and maybe I’ll share a bit of my personal journey. 10 years ago I was a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace. My first day on the job coincided with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest Marine oil spill in the history in history and the Gulf of Mexico.

We were in a drill-baby-drill area where we were going further and deeper to fuel or oil addiction from the Canadian tar sands, which is where I’m from and Geof yourself as well, to the melting ice caps in the Arctic. A decade later look where we are now, arctic drilling licenses are suspended, the Keystone pipeline that was very controversial has been canceled, incredible movements with great momentum.

And the fact that we’re here today, talking about sustainability and then ambition of businesses like Arm and many others, and how we’re turning that into action. I think that’s incredible. And we’re really only just riding on the tailwinds with markets really taking into account and shifting and gearing around environmental, social governance considerations in their valuation of business, which also leads to, you know, business decisions, valuing these considerations all the way to the $150 trillion predicted of global investment set to bring the world to net zero by 2050.

Plus the fact that, you know, we talk about Gen Z, you know, a very purpose-driven digital generation really valuing and considering sustainability while making job decisions. The same can be said for the 40% of millennials who are now stepping into leadership roles driving change in their organizations each and every day.

So transformation is already underway from a technology perspective but also in terms of business models we’re seeing businesses pop up with models around circularity, really thinking about purpose at the heart. So often in my previous role, we used to look at organizations, the born goods and the born agains, and we’re seeing the rise of both of those categories in terms of business.

So with the pace and technological progress the courage of businesses and business leaders to not just do the right thing, which is also the smart thing and science telling us what’s needed. I’m really hopeful and excited to see how we rise to the challenge as an industry.

Geof Wheelwright: Thanks for those fantastic insights. Hilary, I’m feeling a little more hopeful for all of us as a result of this discussion. I’d also like to let everyone know that today Arm is publishing De-carbonizing Compute How the Arm Ecosystem is laying the foundation for a Net-Zero Emissions Future, which outlines Aarm’s approach to this challenge and shows how its partners are already leveraging Arm IP to unlock efficiencies and reduce energy consumption.

We look forward to bringing you more conversation in the next episode of Arm Viewpoints. Thanks again for listening.

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