Monday, 9 February 2009

Is Technology Pulling its Weight in the Fight Against Climate Change?

Intellect, the UK trade association for the technology sector, is running a series of events and debates this week under the general title of High Tech: Low Carbon. The name comes from the report of the same name that the organisation published a year ago - you can read it here.

The kick-off event this morning was a breakfast debate. Short speeches from Intel, the CBI, WWF, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a University of Warwick economist were followed by a (non-attributable) open discussion.

What struck me initially about the speakers was the extent to which they simply stuck to their own perspectives. Intel on how the efficiency of technology has come on in leaps and bounds but was not being adopted by users. The CBI speaker's main concern was how British business could benefit from climate change.

Inevitably, it was the NGO speakers that brought proceedings down to earth. Dax Lovegrove, Head of Business and Industry Relations at WWF pointed out that ICT companies had done well to cut their own carbon footprints, but there is even greater opportunity to deliver reductions to customers. Companies had not focused on the enabling technologies and had also lacked leadership in promoting a low carbon economy.

Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre, had the role of pointing out the urgency of action. The two degree Celcius increase in global temperature that the EU, among others, is aiming at as an acceptable limit now looks increasingly unlikely. A four degree increase is possibly achievable if significant action starts now. Either way, though, a dramatic change in society is needed to achieve the two degree limit or to live with the four degree change.

Finally, Andrew Sentance, Professor of Sustainable Business at Warwick, pointed out the difficulty in growing economies without increasing carbon emissions, but that technology is key to moving in the right direction. Technology can provide energy and transport breakthroughs, can create increased efficiency throughout the economy and can help facilitate the sorts of changes in lifestyle that will be necessary. The key issue is that technology cannot do it alone. It requires politics, business, consumers, etc. to work together.

The point that resonated most with me was the lack of leadership shown by IT companies. Whilst they're eager to get their own house in order and make products more efficient, beyond that there is a wariness. Since IT services are increasingly intertwined with business processes, to promote Green IT services too much could be seen as either irrelevant or even anti-business. IT companies do not want to be seen as tree huggers.

It's understandable. No company wants to take a stance that could put off some customers. That's capitalism at work - lets face it it wasn't designed to have a social conscience. IT companies must be more proactive in promoting technology and services to help companies achieve emissions reductions goals - this is no time to be embarrassed about trying to save the planet. Nevertheless, they can only go so far on their own and need significant support, in terms of regulation, investment, education, etc.

If you want to take part in any of Intellect's High Tech: Low Carbon events, full details are here.

Don't forget - a pdf of all the 2008 blogs is available with news, comment and links to a range of sources. Click
here for more details. The offer ends on Friday February 13th, so don't be unlucky ...

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