Week 4: Technology and The Environment


Updated January 2013

There is a high level of international concern about climate change. This award winning animation seems to capture that:

It appears to many people that we are witnessing an increase in the severity of world weather extremes as a result:

The scientific consensus seems to be that global warming is a significant threat to the world’s climate.The advocates of global warming argue that there is a long term trend or “warming” which they provide substantial evidence to support, although the evidence may be controversial:

They argue that global warming is caused by human behaviour and that without action there will be long term damage to the environment. Here is an excerpt from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth presentation that makes some of the key points:

It is important to acknowledge that there are people who do not agree with Al Gore but they appear to hold the minority view:

This week we will look at four questions about information technology and the environment:

1. What is the impact of computer technology on the environment?

2. What pressures are there for change?

3. What can be done to manage the impact of computer technology on the environment?

4. What can IT do to improve our carbon footprint?

1. What is the impact of computer technology on the environment?

Two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions are thought to be due to information technology – a significant proportion. These emissions stem from the operation of PC servers, cooling of computer equipment, power supplies for their operation, computer networks, printers and disk storage. Global IT spending is estimated at US$2 trillion in 2010 and is growing at the rate of six percent a year. On the basis of this carbon dioxide emissions will accelerate in the future. We also know that the price of this increasing power consumption is also likely to accelerate.

2. What are the pressures for change?

There are a number of pressures that are leading to an increased emphasis on dealing with the impact of information technology on the environment. Governments are starting to intervene in a number of areas, including on the materials used in building computers, the disposal of computer equipment and greenhouse gas emissions through policies focused on these areas. There is also increasing concern about energy efficiency – designed to reduce utility bills and to reduce “carbon footprints.”

It is also now thought that being green will matter to consumers and companies are using their green credentials as part of their marketing. Pressures for corporate social responsibility increase this focus. Prince Charles is also attracted to this approach:

There are a number of factors that will drive the movement towards a more environmentally conscious approach to information technology:

3. What can be done to manage the impact of computer technology on the environment?

There are a number of ways that we can reduce the impact of computer technology on the environment. Cooling is has risen from 50 % to 200 % of the power costs required to run computer equipment and a focus here will be helpful. Server virtualisation increases the utilisation of servers from 10 % of their capability to 60 %. Heat recycling could also reduce costs and emissions by using heat from computer equipment to warm buildings elsewhere. Pressure from vendors to adopt environmentally unfriendly software and hardware configurations should be resisted:

The design of data centres can have a significant impact on the environment:

Data centres should be designed so that progress towards green objectives can be monitored. The whole product life cycle should be taken into account in assessing green IT impact. Alternative energy sources should be explored and adopted and the construction techniques used should be sustainable.

Symantec’s Green IT Report indicates that companies globally are acting to become more environmentally friendly in their IT operations. Their 2009 study shows that 97 % of companies are discussing green IT strategy. 41 % report that they would be willing to pay up to 20 % more for a greener solution. Green IT is also becoming part of wider green initiatives in organisations.

Many companies see these activities as part of a “triple bottom line” approach that focuses company activity on economic, social and environmental success:

4. What can IT do to improve our carbon footprint?

While it is important to focus on and deal with the environmental impact of our use of IT many also now consider the impact that IT can have on reducing our overall carbon footprint. Intel have produced a video that argues for this approach:

Corporate IT can look at a number of areas in which to impact Green IT: sourcing, operations, systems and end of IT life management.

Green IT sourcing involves environmentally focused It purchasing practices that are concerned with the footprint of the IT hardware supply chain. They look for a green record for IT software and services providers. They look at the recycling design and packaging in their vendor selection and they include social concerns in their supply chain, for example the use of harmful materials in the supply chain.

Green IT operations involves examination of energy efficiency in powering and cooling of IT equipment and reduced IT induced greenhouse gas emissions. It is important here to note that there are two types of operations energy efficiency: temporary and structural, with structural approaches reducing the installed power base for the technology.

Green IT systems approaches involve IT supporting business wide green initiatives. They apply analytical information systems to understand business wide supply chain green activity. They support green environmental management and aid in understanding a business’s carbon footprint.

They also support low carbon business solutions such as telecommuting, video-conferencing, working at home, thin clients, web based business services and virtual collaboration:

Finally green IT end of life is focused on ensuring that IT equipment is disposed of in an environmentally responsible way:

So, this week we have looked at the impact of information technology on the environment and the contribution that IT can make to reduce the carbon footprint that we make. As the OECD state – it is imperative that this issue gain urgent attention:

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