Green IT means using technology to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the business – not just making the datacentre energy efficient, industry and environmental experts have urged.

The audience at a panel discussion at Gartner’s ITxpo in Cannes, France, heard that datacentres accounted for a quarter of IT-related carbon emissions, which in turn make up 2% of the world’s total carbon emissions.

But Dennis Pamlin, a global policy adviser at environmental charity WWF, told delegates: “The datacentre is not very important. It’s a lack of proportion, because the biggest thing in IT is datacentres.”

WWF was launching a campaign to make datacentres net suppliers of energy, Pamlin said. But he added: “Get that over with, it’s not a big thing.”

Instead IT departments should “focus on the use of IT in an intelligent way” to monitor and reduce companies’ overall carbon footprints, he argued.

Fellow panellist Mike Yorwerth, director of group technology and architecture at Tesco, agreed, telling delegates that IT accounted for “about 3%” of the supermarket giant’s carbon footprint, but added: “The bigger prize is the other 97%”.

“A big chunk of that is lighting, heating and transportation – about 90%,” he said. “It’s very hard to monitor, manage and control lots of locations centrally through existing building management systems.”

But he said the IT department already had experience of centrally managing IT and office systems and was now taking a similar approach to putting in place systems that dim lights and manage temperatures centrally.

In transportation, “there’s a lot IT can do” through route scheduling and mileage monitoring to reduce the impact of Tesco’s truck usage on the environment, he added.

Tesco was also looking at the environmental impact of its supply chain, he said. “One of the biggest challenges is to carbon footprint a product. Walkers have just carbon footprinted their crisps... it took them a long time to do that. The challenge is what’s a sustainable, repeatable way to look at the carbon miles of things and what can technology do to help that.”

BT’s head of sustainable development, Chris Tuppen, said the scale of carbon emissions meant IT managers “can’t forget” the datacentre, but he also pointed to other energy efficiency measures that could be introduced through technology. “We replaced 850,000 meetings last year using conferencing,” he said.

There was a real business case for acting in an environmentally sustainable way, he added. “It will give you competitive advantage in the marketplace.” BT had made energy efficiency an “adjudicating criterion” for awarding contracts to suppliers, he said.

Pamlin emphasised the importance of IT managers getting involved in wider company efforts to reduce carbon footprints, because they could produce the data and metrics to support carbon reduction. “I see a lot of CIOs taking a leadership role,” he said.

Both Yorwerth and Tuppen said there was more to do in the IT department itself. “Just switch stuff off if you don’t use it any more,” Yorwerth urged.

“We had an amnesty in BT,” Tuppen added. “If you’ve developed an application that went onto a server and it’s no longer needed, [we told staff to] let us know.” BT had spent £65,000 on incentives to encourage IT staff to nominate redundant kit in an initiative that had resulted in 3,000 servers being switched off and a saving of more than £1m in energy and other costs, Tuppen said.