SAP Arbor Week
As you probably know by now the 24th to the 28th of April 2023 is when SAP celebrates “Arbor Week”:
The goal is simple – 20 thousand interactions on the SCN site, each one of which will result in a tree being planted. You know what they say – two’s company but trees a crowd.
All jokes aside it is fairly common knowledge that the world is in catastrophic environmental collapse and unless something radical is done then we are probably looking at the total breakdown of society worldwide circa 2040. If you really want to scare yourself have a look at the Netflix documentary “Sea-Spiracy”.
So radical action is needed and since the governments of the world have not had much luck getting anything done thus far apart from making a lot of noise, it is up to individuals and corporations to plug the gap. That last one – corporations – is really surprising considering that historically they have been viewed as the villains of the piece. Nowadays however if you read the annual report of any large company, they boast about how much they are doing environmentally – the million dollar question becomes – how much of that is real and how much is “Greenwashing” where once again just like the governments you make a lot of noise and then don’t do anything.
So, following the rule of three I am going to say what the organisation I work for is doing in general, give a very specific example, and then end with what I personally have been working on begging the question – can ABAP programming help save the world?
As you read the next few paragraphs you are probably going to think I am writing a “puff piece” – just regurgitating what my organization posts on their website and then praising them to the heavens. The thing is I am speaking from inside the tent, and I happen to know it is not just greenwashing – it’s all actually true.
The organization I work for is a producer of building materials like cement concrete and aggregates (quarrying) – which is currently perceived by many to be at what you might call the “wrong end” of the sustainability index given that globally my organization alone emits 0.1% of man-made CO2 emissions each year (the kiln that produces the cement needs to be really hot and that produces the CO2. The Roman Empire got their cement from volcanoes).
0.1% does not sound like a lot, but it is.
Since the demand for building materials is not going to go away, the company has two choices going forward.
- Keep going as is, and eventually get abandoned by investors, shut down by the governments of the world, and go down in history as the evillest people who ever lived, or
- Keep producing the materials, but drastically reduce the CO2 emissions over time whilst stopping them going into the air in the first place, and at the same time make more money for the investors and governments (via tax) and get gold medals and a ticker tape parade
For some strange reason we have elected to go with the second option and (as I just said and will keep saying) it is not just greenwashing. And the IT department has a big role to play in this (since everything runs via computers these days) – more on this in section 3.
There are actual concrete plans (if you forgive the pun) to turn this whole thing around, still keep producing cement / concrete but with a vastly reduced environmental footprint (carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest) and make more money at the same time. No-one seems to realise that environmental initiates almost always save more money than they cost e.g., running costs for electric trucks are less than the running costs for petrol/diesel powered trucks.
Apart from dozens (hundreds) of tiny initiatives like more solar power etc, the general plan is incredibly simple, and it is not a secret at all, the board of directors shouts it out through a megaphone at the annual investor day.
It’s rather like Elon Musk and his rockets. His big breakthrough was to do something that – in retrospect – is obvious. The idea was that if you had to build a new passenger aircraft for every flight from London to New York and then throw it away afterwards then there would not be many such flights. And yet that is exactly what was happening with rockets, even with the space shuttle. 95%+ of the rocket fell to the bottom of the ocean, annoying the fish and gone forever.
So, he has the booster rockets and the rest of that 95% fall back to Earth and get captured so they can be re-used the next day (or the same day) rather than being totally re-built.
In the same way buildings do not last forever unless it is some sort of historical thing you are trying to keep standing for all time. Eventually most buildings must be demolished. You end up with a big pile of concrete rubble and wood and whatever else the building was made from. What do you with all that rubbish? Throw it away was the traditional answer.
But what if you should unscramble that egg and turn that rubbish into building materials that can be re-used? That is our aim, every year to constantly increase the percentage of recycled material when new building materials are supplied.
As an example, one of our companies posted on our internal website that they were now using broken glass in the asphalt they produce (asphalt is the black stuff that roads are coated with). My response was “smashing!”.
The more you recycle the less new cement/concrete you need and thus the less CO2 produced. I am told it is even possible to suck out (to some extent) the cement from concrete rubble, a chemical reaction that actually absorbs CO2 (in the same way the initial mixing emits it). That is literally like unscrambling an egg and I am very surprised such a thing can be done.
This is “Arbor Week” so when it comes to trees specifically – once again one aspect of my industry (Quarrying) is painted as the villain (because we dig big holes in the ground) leading to attacks – both verbal and sometimes physical – from organizations like “Friends of the Earth”
And the whole thing is based on a misconception. Pretty much everywhere in the world we operate when the quarry is exhausted, legally we must restore the area to at least a good a state as it was in before we started.
I will give a very specific example. In the year 2013 we had an exercise where we in IT tried to visit as many of our sites across Australia as possible (and we have hundreds) and ask them what was wrong with the SAP system. Initially people will be polite and say everything is fine. But then after you ask them the same question a few times in different ways the ice cracks and they start becoming emotionally and tell you in no uncertain terms what they feel is wrong. It’s a wonderful exercise after pretty much every visit we discover things that need fixing, things we would never have known in a million years if we had not actually gone to the place.
During that year I visited a Landfill we operated in Victoria. After asking all the IT questions we were offered a tour of the place which I gleefully accepted.
Now you are most likely thinking – a Landfill? Where rubbish gets dumped in a big hole in the ground? How in the world are you going to tell me that is a good thing for the environment? Please bear with me whilst I tell you how the thing works.
You fill up one area at a time, each hole in the ground is finished when the quarry has dug up all it can, and so the time has come to fill the hole up again. Each area starts off with a great big black sheet on the ground made of something that looks like rubber. Then throughout each day’s trucks arrive and dump rubbish onto this sheet. At the end of the day the waste rocks from the quarry next door are dumped on top of the rubbish. The process repeats each day forming a “layer cake” if you will of rubbish/rocks. Eventually you end up with a hill sized pile. At that point soil is used to coat that hill and seeded with native plants.
After the exercise is over the only way you can tell that hill is artificial is because it has pipes coming out of the top and bottom. The pipes at the top are to funnel away the methane that forms as the rubbish decays. That gas is piped to the electricity station next door where it is used to generate electricity. Gas is produced from the hill for 20 years on average.
The pipes at the bottom funnel out what could be described as horrific yellow slime, again a by-product of the rubbish decaying. That gets dried out by solar power until it is nothing but dust, a dust which is a powerful fertiliser. When I was there some university students were doing their thesis on the best way to use that, they had loads of plants in different pots all with different dosages.
So, as the quarry finishes each area the resulting hole is filled up and turned into a hill. After many years the quarry is finished, all the holes are turned into hills, and the whole area given for nothing to the government so they can use it as a nature reserve.
Now you will say – it would be better if there was not half a million tons of rubbish produced each day, and how right you would be. However, given the fact that currently – unfortunately it is – and thus that rubbish needs to be dealt with and the question is how to do that in the best way possible. It is the same with concrete and cement in general – like it or not people want roads and bridges and houses and apartments, so you need building materials and once again the question becomes how to do that in the least damaging way?
(3) Can ABAP Programming help save the world?
I am happy to say that I personally am involved in programming something that has in the past reduced the amount of CO2 generated in the concrete production process and will in the future reduce it even more.
I did not write the algorithms used – they are a trade secret so I cannot say anything much about them – but it is my job to put them into the concrete production process in SAP. That is SAP works out the optimal recipe (people think there is only one type of concrete, but it is like beer – only a few different ingredients but a billion different sorts) and tells what is called the “batch computer” what materials to put in the barrel of the concrete truck to get mixed together en-route to the building site.
As I said at the start of the blog computers control everything these days, and so as time goes by the amount of programming tasks that involve sustainability will only increase.
One good example would be integrating the conveyor belts with the central SAP system – what you would call a merger of IT & OT. Once the belts had sensors on them then we could stop them when they were empty rather than running them 24/7 which was the case before.
Our sustainability team says in many ways this is a journey of constantly improving by a fraction of a percent – printing less (e.g., having QR codes on the side of a truck as opposed to a paper printed docket) running the conveyors belts a bit less here, replacing trucks with electric equivalents there, having ever more plants powered by solar power and so on and so on. That combined with an over-arching goal of reducing the central problem (of emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide) and we have a realistic plan for moving forward, which is more than you can say for things like the Paris Agreement.
Example (and this is a puff piece, but true nonetheless, and just one of many)
PS Here is a video about the concrete industry in general which also touches on demolition and re-use of buildings.
PS Since this whole thing is a highly emotive subject, I am sure I will get a right roasting in the comments, but I was asked to write on this subject by SAP and I thought “why not?”