BT sustainability lead Sarwar Khan is clear-eyed about the key role the telco sector has in supporting climate action in the entire economy, as well as its own responsibility in reducing its environmental impact.
“Data traffic will grow eightfold by 2030, and that's excluding the use of AI,” the Global Head of Sustainability at BT’s newly created business unit tells CSO Futures, citing a study BT conducted with Accenture in 2021 – conducted “before ChatGPT became a thing.”
This kind of exponential growth will require copious amounts of power to fuel servers and data centres around the world. (In fact, experts warn that while most sectors decarbonise, IT’s carbon footprint is set to increase.)
BT sustainability efforts have driven down emissions 55%
BT business offers connectivity solutions to more than one million companies around the world, and BT Group (which comprises Consumer, Business and Openreach) has a carbon footprint of about 3.5 million tonnes in 2023 – 95% of which is in Scope 3.
BT's own emissions, of course, are its customers' Scope 3 emissions and as organisations look to improve the granularity of their reporting, they need more data from the telco.
“We want to help our customers measure the impact of what they buy from BT. And it's going to start with carbon to begin with, because that's where the most pressure is at the moment. But we see that naturally, and quite rapidly evolving into some other metrics as well: things like water, energy and circularity,” Khan explains.
BT carbon footprint: targets and progress
The company itself has set an SBTi-approved target to be a net zero carbon emissions business (Scope 1 and 2) by reducing the carbon intensity of its operations by 87% by the end of March 2031 (from a 2017 baseline). For Scope 3, the goal is to achieve net zero by 2041, with an interim target of reducing supplier emissions by 42% by 2031.
So far, the company has cut Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 55%, by switching to 100% market-based renewable electricity, introducing more electric vehicles and decarbonising buildings. It has also cut supplier emissions by 28%. For now, the telco giant is focusing entirely on carbon reductions, and only plans to buy carbon removal credits to offset hard-to-abate emissions (up to 10% as per SBTi guidelines) once these reductions have been achieved.
Khan’s job is twofold: first, he is charged with accounting and minimising BT’s impact on customers. So far, BT has provided emissions data to its clients based on metre readings from “comms rooms, data centres, where our equipment lies and so on, as a way of baselining our total impact from an ICT perspective”.
Granular baselining and network design decisions
With customers lobbying for more granular data on their IT providers’ carbon emissions profile, in 2023, the company started using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s ICT Sector Guidance to provide a more accurate baseline of end-to-end emissions from its global networks.
He explains: “We're now using that as a way of conducting our analysis, and quantifying the different levels of impact all the way from energy, but also scope three carbon emissions impact, and we're also now breaking down the numbers into the different lifecycle parts as well. So in our assessment, we now include things like embodied emissions, which would have been very difficult to ascertain before.”
This comprehensive baselining exercise is already leading BT to reassess its global network design, with an official announcement expected in the coming months which will explain “very clearly how we've made those choices and factored them in, in terms of engineering our network to be more sustainable,” according to Khan.
Of course, making IT systems and networks more efficient is also a business priority: BT consumes about 0.8% of the UK’s electricity, making the recent increase in power prices a business risk, he says. The company is also spending £600 million a year on legacy IT systems that made up 80% of its 2,400 applications in 2022, with the company looking to cut this cost by half by 2025.
Connectivity (and human connection) for sustainability
The second component of Khan’s job is to help customers leverage BT’s connectivity products to meet their own decarbonisation goals. That includes providing the tools they need to move faster from carbon-intensive platforms like PSTN (public switched telephone network) lines and 3G networks onto more efficient platforms, like optic fibre (FTTP) and 5G.
“A priority for me is really to look at how we get customers to move across to these newer platforms a lot quicker, because again, that would contribute to BT’s emission reduction as a group, but also help our customers,” he adds.
Finally, his role is also to develop low-carbon products, digital tools and services to help customers grow digitally in a more sustainable way – and that, to him, can only be achieved by nurturing strong relationships with clients and partners.
Since starting his role in December 2021, he has sat down with at least one or two customers every week to understand what they need from their telecom provider as they attempt to reduce their own climate impact. And despite a slurry of recent awards – including being ranked number 25 on Corporate Knight’s prestigious list of the 100 most sustainable companies – this dedication to meeting and understanding clients is Khan’s proudest achievement so far.
“It's easy to say we have all the answers, right? That we know what the future of sustainability looks like in the next 10 years. But the truth is we need to hear it from our customers, and many of them are on different parts of the journey,” he points out.
At the time of the interview, he had just returned from BT’s Sustainability Festival, an event he said was designed to “bring sustainability to life”. There, customers were able to touch, feel and experience sustainability technology, understand how it works in a live environment and whether it's applicable for them in their environment – yet another opportunity for Khan to “have those conversations”.
Operating on a devolved power model
Asked about the lessons he would share with other Chief Sustainability Officers or Heads of Sustainability, Khan warns against letting sustainability become a tick box exercise as teams are forced to comply with an increasing number of standards and regulations. “If it’s about ‘how do you comply’, there's a bigger risk that then you treat your organisation as a silo. And so really, for me, one of the biggest lessons would be that it's still very important to spend time with customers and partners, because everyone is part of a broader ecosystem. If we're not speaking, if we're not understanding each other, then we're not going to progress.”
In a perfect world, he would like to see the CSO community operate on “a devolved power model”, where the sustainability team provides the support and the tools for other parts of the organisation to deliver sustainability, “ because that's when you actually get scale”.
He points out that sustainability teams are not the people who are on the ground, delivering sustainability. Instead, their role is to empower others: “Like a CIO in an organisation to make sure that when they're digitally transforming, they understand why sustainability is important, but they're also given the right tools and metrics to make sure that they are building in sustainability as part of the organisation. Same with the operational business, if someone is managing fleet or property for the company, then what do they need to know about being sustainable in their role?”
Khan himself reports to BT Business Chief Operating Officer Kerry Small, which gives him an opportunity to “influence horizontally”, helping the departments within the COO’s remit (including product, strategy and marketing) to integrate sustainability. “It’s not very normal for organisations to do that. But is it working for us? Absolutely,” he notes.
He and his six-person team have a budget, but in a clear example of his preferred devolved power model, each of these departments also get to apply for their own sustainability budget every year. “I could do that centrally and say, I'll ask for X million per year, which covers [sustainability for] the whole business. Or it's probably better for the product teams and marketing teams to be more embedded and more accountable to sustainability, by asking for the budget themselves, but backed by me signing off on the sustainability piece.”
Khan sees this as a great way to embed sustainability throughout BT’s entire business, to the point where he thinks his role should no longer exist in 10 years. “There's some parts that will always exist, for example, you will always always need people who can understand compliance and report on sustainability. But people like me, who are trying to encourage product managers and marketing teams to build a next generation of products quantifying sustainability, that should become the norm. So why should I be in a role in 10 years doing that?”