Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Value of Green IT

There's been some coverage in the last week of comments by Richard Hawkins, Canada Research Chair in Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, who apparently says that there is no evidence that IT necessarily reduces our environmental footprint. The source for the coverage seems to be a press release from the University of Calgary, which is here.

The article isn't very clear, but it seems to convey three points from Hawkins research:

- IT technologies take a lot of energy to make and run and result in a significant amount of, often toxic, waste. This we know and a lot of time, effort and expense is being directed at reducing these impacts (for example, see my posting earlier this week about zero-watt PCs from Fujitsu-Siemens Computers). Hawkins acknowledges the efforts.

- However, his second point is that IT has an indirect impact that will not be mitigated by greener products. The use of technology supports other activities that do have environmental implications, such as mobile phones and laptops which allow us to be more mobile, which in turn creates more greenhouse gas emissions.

This is of course true, but leads to a minefield of implications. What we do know is that the use of technology is directly correlated with economic development and growth. Ultimately we may need to take action in this respect, but until the world is at least on a level playing field international politics is going to prevent any restriction on technology use.

- The article goes on "Hawkins says the problem is not that IT is inherently more or less green than other technologies. The problem is that it has been applied so extensively that its environmental implications—positive as well as negative—are often overlooked. Hawkins and his research team are establishing a more reliable basis for identifying and assessing the contribution of IT to our environmental footprint".

Well, based on this article, Hawkins seems to be focusing on the negative aspects and much work has already been done on the positive contribution that IT can make in a variety of areas. In particular I would point to the Smart 2020 report produced by The Climate Group (with the help of McKinsey) for the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) looking at the potential impact of IT. The main thrust of the report, which was published last June and I commented on at the time, is to point out that ICT emissions are set to grow at an average annual rate of 5.7% from 2002 to 2020. However, the five opportunities identified in the report (dematerialisation, smart buildings, smart power, smart industry and smart transport) could lead to emissions reductions of five times that of the ICT sector.

I hope Hawkins gives a balanced view when he contributes his research to the Earth Summit in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

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