Everyone is starting to realise that everything we do needs scrutiny for its impact on planet Earth. And ‘everyone' includes governments, companies, IT users and - not least - CIOs.
The bad news first. Manufacturing a PC requires about the same amount of resource (fossil fuels, chemicals, water) as manufacturing a small car. The good news is that IT can help both reduce carbon emissions and safeguard finite resources. Big changes in IT - from data centre consolidation to thin-client devices - can have a considerable impact on carbon reductions. Equally, many small contributions can have as much impact as a few large ones - eg reducing the need for many short journeys can save the emission of thousands of tonnes of C02.
And let's not forget that IT use accounts for only two per cent of global emissions- and has an important part to play in reducing the other 98 per cent. Technologies such as collaboration and videoconferencing can reduce travel; and radio frequency identification (RFID) can be used to track assets such as containers for reuse. Of course, to reduce energy and resource consumption, IT needs to be controlled; IT is not just part of the problem, rather it is part of the solution as well.
To make sustainable IT a reality, we must assess not only the technology itself but also the efficiency of end-to end-business processes involving IT, and how to change people's behaviour through the entire lifecycle - technology component manufacture, use, disposal and recycling. We can identify three pillars that support sustainable IT: technology, process and behaviour. Let's see what each has to offer.
Pillar 1: Technology
Initiatives that can make the biggest savings in carbon reduction fall into two main groups: controlling IT to make it environmentally efficient; and applying IT to reduce emissions and preserve resources.
Controlling IT includes datacentre consolidation, rationalisation, virtualisation, cooling etc; desktop power control and use of thin-client devices; controlling print output; and using components that are energy-efficient. One area of increasing interest is the location of data centres. Sites powered at least in part by renewable energy sources are already being used to great effect. The Google Mountain View Data Centres are powered in part by a solar "forest"; while the HP manufacturing plant in Ireland exploits wind farms.
Applying IT includes using videoconferencing and collaboration to reduce travel; GPS and location-aware systems to pinpoint problems that need a follow-up visit e.g. potholes in a road, to prevent unnecessary journeys; and RFID tagging to track items for re-use.
‘IT is a relatively small part of the carbon emissions problem but will be a huge part of the solution' - The Green IT Report
Pillar 2: Process
Technology alone cannot capture all the opportunities for carbon reduction and environmental efficiency. The assessment of end-to-end business processes for carbon "hot spots" such as excessive printing, distribution, travel can identify areas on which to focus.
To embed this awareness into all future business systems, "Architecture for sustainability" should be defined, with principles such as: "This system will only capture the information it needs to perform its job, to save storing unused data on spinning disk".
Similarly, "IT operations for sustainability" could include principles such as "This system will automatically move aged data, not accessed for six months, onto near line storage and off spinning disks". This will prevent consuming energy unnecessarily and free expensive resources for other purposes. One Fortune 500 company I worked for discovered, after consolidating and centralising its file servers that 60 per cent of its files had not been accessed for six months, and putting in place some simple information lifecycle management saved terabytes of storage.
Pillar 3: Behaviour
Changing people's behaviour is crucial to achieving environmental targets.
On the demand side, a number of methods can be used. Defining and communicating policies such as powering off desktops, extending the life of computer equipment and so on are essential; but thought needs to be given to how to enforce them. One approach is to use "green champions", who through personal example start a domino effect within the organisation, influencing colleagues to adopt similar environmentally aware behaviour.
On the supply side, the sustainable supply chain of suppliers should be considered from manufacture to disposal. Procurement people should insist on obtaining and assessing the suppliers' "green" credentials. Capgemini's Green IT Report analyses our key partners across manufacturing, transport, logistics, design and disposal / recycling. Sustainable procurement and sustainable contracting rules will drive vendors and service providers to become environmentally efficient through all stages of the product and service lifecycle.
Does the old adage "What cannot be measured cannot be managed" hold true in the context of sustainable IT? There are some areas, such as greenhouse gas emissions, that are difficult to measure - but difficulties in monitoring cannot impede progress. Nonetheless great benefits can be derived from measuring whatever it is possible to measure, so that progress can be tracked, thus creating a sense of proven achievement.
Despite the challenges and complexities, it is clear that much can be done - and is being done - to make IT sustainable and to unleash its power to boost sustainability across all kinds of activities. So can we develop sustainable IT and help save the planet? Not only is it possible but it can bring massive businesses benefits with it.