NQ Logic

Technology | Strategy | Consulting

From Green IT to IT for Green

Last Monday saw the beginning of United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference hosts over 15,000 delegates/officials, 5,000 journalists and 98 world leaders. According to the organizers, the eleven-day conference, including the participants’ travel, the 1,200 rented limos and 140 extra private jets for the occasion, will create a total of 41 metric kilotons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the amount produced by 260,000 cars over the same period of time.

Climate Change is a top priority in word’s leader agenda and the only way to achieve a new guideline after the Kyoto protocol (which ends in 2012), is to gather in one city all the policy makers of the world, even at the expensive cost of many kilotons of CO2 emission.

What Are the CO2 Emissions Today?

Today, the US and China combined are responsible for 41% of the global CO2 emissions. With such important stake in the equation, the two countries (called G2 by some) are pulling all their weight in the current negotiations. A proper agreement can only happen if both US and China commit, unlike the Kyoto Protocol.

Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center
(CDIAC) for United Nations

Another data to note is the strong correlation between GDP (PPP) growth and CO2 emissions growth year-to-year. Two shocks of oil prices and various recessions have slow down the emissions in the last few decades, but what is obvious is that economic growth increases CO2 emissions growth, regardless of the country’s economic stage.

Source: CO2 Emissions from
Fuel Combustion – Highlight [2009]

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released recently a new data set for 2007 emissions that listed about 140 countries. Alarmingly, the rate of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion by developing China is at a pace unseen before. Other rising countries like Brazil and India are quickly following, not in a scale exhibited by China yet, but at a pace important enough to be a definitive trend. Economic expansion in the developing world has a quick and soaring impact on the CO2 emissions.

In its Climate Change 2007 report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that by 2050 the planet needs to decrease global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 60-85% below today’s emission levels in order to hold average global temperature increases below 2°C. The well-regarded report was produced by 620 authors and editors from 40 countries, and reviewed by more than 620 experts and governments, is now considered to be the most scientific proof of the climate change and its potential consequences on the planet.

The report further identifies what the main sources of GHG emissions are by sector. Although the report referenced 2004 data, the proportion estimates haven’t changed drastically since then. GHG emissions have been essentially driven by Energy Supply and Industry sectors (45%).

Source: United Nations Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC)
[Climate Change 2007]

In summary, and at a very high level, the GHG emissions are caused by developed and fast emerging countries with expanding manufacturing and services sectors.

What Are the CO2 Emissions Due to IT Today?

In the green literature, CO2 emissions by the IT sector has not taken the spotlight from the Oil & Gas sector, but a recent report from McKinsey had estimated the carbon footprint associated with the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), including laptops and PCs, data centers and computing networks, mobile phones, and telecommunications networks, and on all levels of emissions associated with use of energy, their manufacture and distribution aspect [Oct 2008].

The report affirms that in 2008, the ICT technologies were accountable for about 2% of the emissions added to the atmosphere globally (0.86 metric gigatons per year). That is equivalent to all the emissions from the global aviation sector, or a quarter of the global car industry annually. And by 2020, ICT will be responsible for about 3% of all emissions (1.54 metric gigatons a year), due to the exponential demand in communications, storage and computation sectors. The fast adoption of ICT technologies in India, China and other developing countries accounts for much of the emissions increase.

Over the next decade, emissions from the manufacture and use of PC’s alone will double in part due to the rising middle-class buyers in developing countries. Likewise, increased penetration of mobile phones around the world will triple its carbon footprint by 2020. But the fastest rising contributor of CO2 emissions is data centers, whose carbon footprint will increase more than fivefold between 2002 and 2020, in order to support the PC’s, mobile phones, enterprise solutions, etc. Gartner, which also estimated the ICT contribution to 2% of the global CO2 emissions, has identified that 40% of ICT-related CO2 emissions are caused by workstation PC’s and the accompanying monitors, and another 23% by servers, cooling systems and data centers.

Although the topic has been surprisingly discrete in the media headlines, the ICT impact on the GHG emissions is as significant as its preponderance in everyday life, and rare are the detractors when it comes to greening the technology.

Green IT

"Green IT" is the study and practice of using technology resources efficiently with minimal impact on the environment. The term itself was first used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 70’s. It was initially built around the notion of reducing the amount of unsafe compounds used by the IT industry and the practice of recycling them at the end of their life. But soon enough, the refurbishing initiative evolved to take under its umbrella other components of the device lifecycle like its manufacturing, design and use.

Today "Green IT" has been re-positioned in the media from its inspirational initial motive to a practical bottom-line imperative. The re-branded "business of green" is now speaking the financial language and is using the latest financial tools, climate theories and scientific measurements to impose its ambition. In the media, the Energy Star program from the late 80’s and the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) acronym from the late 90’s have been replaced nowadays by the soon-to-be-popularized Cap-and-Trade system.

It is interesting to notice that the 40 years of discussion on this particular topic has essentially been directed by large ICT manufacturing companies with the sole goal to push for more consumption, or at least for the latest improved device purchase. Ironically enough, flows of marketing campaigns toward more environmental-friendly device can only be seen as a least evil option. There is nothing green in the digital world per se, but elsewhere is worse.

"Manufacturing a desktop computer and 17-inch CRT monitor uses at least 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1,500 kg of water -- a total of 1.8 tons of materials" Computers and the Environment, by United Nations University (2004).

"Green IT" today is focusing essentially around the short-term energy efficiency problem and long term equipment disposal concern, but could be best summarized by the 3 R’s initiatives: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Source: NQ Logic (2009)

Out of the massive amount of data that is floating around about green initiatives in the technology world a handful are verifiable statistics, but two incumbents have rightfully earned headlines: Data Center and PC. Following are a few notable data points:
  • By 2011, energy expenditures by servers and data centers could reach U$7.4bn annually, a 65% increase from U$4.5bn in 2006. Just to give a sense of perspective, the current estimated level of electricity consumption in the US by data centers is more than the electricity consumed by the nation’s color televisions.
  • All data centers globally produce 0.3% of the world’s C02 emissions compared to 0.6% by the airline industry and 1% by the steel industry [Uptime Institute].
  • A PC with a screensaver going can use well over 100W of power, compared with only about 10W in sleep mode. Companies can save between $25 and $75 on power bills per PC per year by powering down machines when they're not in use.
  • The average server has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV doing 15 miles-per-gallon.
  • Nearly 40% of servers are under-utilized by more than 50% [Global Action Plan]
Above references have massive scale and large consequence on the electricity bill, translating into substantial cost savings when green initiatives are well planned and executed for any company of any size and with a very short-term return on investment. Any large technology manufacturing company can define a greener ICT strategy for immediate impact and savings.

And though all these numbers are quite impressive, it is nothing compared to what ICT can achieve in reducing GHG emissions … in the other sectors of the economy.

IT for Green

ICT is responsible of 2% of the GHG emissions on the planet. The other 98% are not caused by ICT and this large portion can be re-designed, re-manufactured, re-used and re-cycled much in the similar vein that ICT sector has been doing for the past 40 years. Certainly ICT is not a model for green initiatives (far from it in reality) but it is one of the mature industries to have had policy regulations for decades and is also inherently driven by constant innovations and process improvements.

It will be very tedious to list all the possible cross-innovations that could result in digitalizing different sectors, but the four main directions where ICT can help other industries turning green are:

  1. Measurement
    ICT sector is primarily based on numbers (0 and 1 in fact), and has managed with a certain success to expand almost in every place possible to give a notion of level, a sense of measurement for people, and sometimes, machine, to make decisions. The expansion is not fully complete, and more measurement should be implemented for green initiatives. For example, in the logistics sector, a better ICT system and tools can optimize truck fleet, load, routes to optimize fuel consumption; better commercial and domestic building infrastructure could help to monitor and dynamically adjust electricity, water and heat consumption.

  2. Knowledge Management
    The internet is today used as a real-time sharing and collaborating tool for millions of users around the world. With more and more devices connecting to the network, basic or more elaborate knowledge can be transferred in real-time to address the asymmetric information imbalance, responsible for faulty decisions causing climate change happening before our eyes. For example, in the manufacturing sector, using ICT can enable better energy efficiency and control dependency to address the imperfection in the factories; in the automobile industry, standardization of electric car battery could help reduce the initial cost of purchase.

  3. Virtualization of Goods, Services and People
    Moving information into the digital world could help to reduce the carbon footprint. Digitalizing all information and reducing paper usage can not only reduce deforestation but help process CO2. The less paper the world uses, the more trees can be used to absorb CO2 emissions. Moreover, by digitalizing people’s interactions and business exchanges, physical transportation can be reduced, which accounts for 13% of CO2 emissions. Teleworking, video conferencing and other virtual shopping are just the beginning of tomorrow consumers’ and employees’ behavior that would lift travel imperative and cheap and dirty energy dependence.

  4. Smart Networks
    For a better and more stable world’s climate, scarce resource-sharing on a global scale is what human beings started to put in place. Certain initiatives are now reaching mainstream in the economic sense and public institution are now in the finalities of implementing a better network for electricity (Smart Grid), for computing (Cloud Computing) or for people (Smart Cities).
These directions can only be explored when the right incentives are put in place to nurture both the private and public sectors, in order to regulate, commercialize and bring to market the innovations of ICT, alternative energies, smarter networks, and other initiatives to truly impact our carbon footprint.

That is the time when policy makers come into play and Copenhagen, like Kyoto before, could be another stop on the long road of a greener life on the only livable planet we know.

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