Now-a-days, there is a lot of talk about ‘global warming’, ‘protecting the environment’, ‘clean environment’, ‘triple bottom line accounting’ i.e. the 3 essential ‘Ps for environmentally responsible businesses (People, Planet and Profit), ‘ill effects of industries’ (in general) on our environment, etc. In this article , we understand how IT can impact our environment. This awareness is extremely important for building a sense of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) – for industry professionals as well students who are the industry workforce of tomorrow.
The word ‘environment’ has become prominent and is one of the most discussed topics in many forums as we enter economy growth and prosperity era. Our surrounding is our environment. This includes living and non-living things around us. The non-living components of environment are land, water and air. The living components are germs, plants, animals as well as people. There is a concept of ‘symbiotic relationship’ among all these elements of our environment. Ecology and ecological balance are crucial for healthy living of all beings. In different environments, there is a variety of plants and animals. Any change in an environment may affect their living. Study of plants and animals in relation to one another and to their surroundings is ecology. In ideal conditions, we can live together with plants and animals, without disturbing each other. This is known as the state ‘ecological’ balance. However, in an era of tremendous industrial growth (including the IT industry), this ecological balance is getting disturbed. This is due to the increasing ‘carbon foot print’ of most industries; IT included. And let us not forget that all industries today are heavily dependent on IT. Other industries’ IT load may be comparable to IT industry’s own load — whether we consider the power load or the environmental (carbon) load.
Green house gases, global warming and carbon footprint
Global warming is the most commonly used term in current discussions. It is closely related to the term ‘green house gases (GHG). A few gases are known as ‘green house gases’ (GHG): they are – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated hydrocarbons and water vapor.
Another important term to be introduced here is ‘carbon footprint.’ A carbon footprint is a measure of the total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event or product or other bodies. To simplify reporting, it is often expressed in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent of other GHGs, emitted. Another definition for Carbon Footprint is — the carbon footprint is a measure of the exclusive global amount of carbon dioxide (CO2 in Kgs or tons) and other greenhouse gases emitted by a human activity or accumulated over the full life cycle of a product or service. Although there is no particular enforced standard for measuring the carbon footprint, it is usually expressed in metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year.
Carbon Footprint in the IT industry context
It is a popular belief that the airline industry is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. However, what is not known much is the fact that the ICT sector accounts for approximately 2% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — this is almost equivalent to that of the airline industry as per Gartner estimates. If we consider the carbon footprint contribution, the IT emission statistics show the following:
- PCs and Monitors contribute 40%
- Servers (including the cooling mechanisms) contribute 23%
- ixed telecom equipment contribute 15%
- Mobile telecom devices contribute 9%
- LAN and Office telecoms contribute 7%
- Printers contribute 6%
In the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) domain, the heating and cooling, and IT account for some of the largest chunks in energy consumption within buildings, accounting for 58% and 25% respectively. We can see that information technology has a considerable amount of carbon footprint. It is expected that more than half of the ICT sector would have a declared environmental policy by the end of 2010.
How IT can negatively impact our environment
The growth of IT industry (specially data centers) is putting increasing levels of stress on power and cooling infrastructure. The terms ‘power’ and ‘energy’ as in Electrical Engineering parlance are important to understand. We pay for electricity in terms of how it is used. As per IBM estimates, IT kilowatt-hour usage has increased fivefold in the past five years. This IT-related energy use contributes to the establishment’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some shocking information was found in the year 2007 report to Congress by US Environment Protection Energy (EPA).
It was found that in the US servers and data centers alone accounted for 1.5% of the country’s total electricity consumption in 2006 – more than double what was consumed in 2000. This is similar to the energy consumed by about 5.8 million average US households, and accounted for some US$4.5 billion worth of electricity. Under current efficiency trends, consumption could nearly double again by 2011 – delivering a $7.4 billion energy bill to firms and potentially accounting for some 2.5% of total energy consumption. These are not happenings in isolation. They have a significant impact on our environment. Already in the year 2005, the total power demand by servers and data centers was equivalent to fourteen 1000 MW power plants. These figures exclude PCs, laptops and other IT infrastructure. As concerns over climate change grow, this rising energy usage will come under greater scrutiny. This will put organizations under tremendous pressure to account for their IT policies and practices.
Having understood the environmental impact implications from the ICT industry, it is fair to say that IT and the environment are going to be a new item on a CIO’s agenda. The ‘Go-Green’ drive ought to be one of the top items in boardroom strategic plans. A green agenda has never been more important for organizations, yet it would appear that there is much more talk than action.