There are many ways to reduce the industry's carbon footprint.
EVERYWHERE I turn in the computer industry nowadays, people are talking about Green IT. The subject is reasonably easy to define - it's all about making computers and computer departments smaller and more efficient consumers of energy.
Information technology is a significant consumer of electricity worldwide, on a par with the airline industry. Therefore it makes sense, as emission reduction becomes desirable and even mandatory, that IT users should look at ways of reducing the energy consumption of their systems.
There are many well-documented ways of doing this. One popular method is virtualisation, which allows many "virtual machines" to run on one piece of hardware, at both the server and PC level. A related and simpler technique is server consolidation, which simply reduces the number of servers by having multiple applications run on them.
There is also a move towards "green PCs", which use much less power than the old sort, and, of course, thin clients - diskless machines that consume a fraction of the power.
The disciplines, technologies and methodologies of green IT have become reasonably well know, and many analysts and consulting groups are writing reports and offering services that advise on and facilitate the process.
Not so widely discussed is IT's enabling effect - its ability to reduce our carbon footprint by facilitating more efficient infrastructure and less carbon-intensive work practices. These can include teleconferencing instead of flying or commuting, IT-enabled energy-reduction systems, smart metering and a range of other technologies.
The issues are discussed in depth in the excellent report titled SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age. It is available at no cost at gesi.org.
GeSI stands for Global e-Sustainability Initiative, a loose consortium of major vendors including Cisco, Dell, Deutsche Telekom, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia and others. The report has great insights into how IT can help organisations and individuals reduce their environmental degradation.
"Aside from emissions associated with deforestation, the largest contribution to man-made greenhouse gas emissions comes from power generation and fuel used for transportation. It is therefore not surprising that the biggest role IT could play is in helping to improve energy efficiency in power transmission and distribution, in buildings and factories that demand power and in the use of transportation to deliver goods."
The report estimates that IT has the potential to reduce global emissions by 15% by 2020.
"This represents a significant proportion of the reductions below 1990 levels that scientists and economists recommend to avoid dangerous climate change," the report states. "In economic terms, the IT-enabled energy efficiency translates into approximately $US100billion of cost savings. It is an opportunity that cannot be overlooked."
Besides making power transmission and transport much more efficient, the report examines many other ways that IT can help us move towards a more sustainable world, including smart buildings, reduced travel, a smaller IT footprint, industrial automation.
The report's title uses the contrived acronym SMART. The "S" stands for standardisation - IT's ability to bring disparate processes together. "M" stands for monitoring, particularly of energy consumption. "A"stands for accountability, which is not possible without information and, by extension, information systems. "R"stands for rethinking - the inevitable paradigm shift. And "T" stands for transformation, which is self-evident.
Any good Green IT practice should look at these broader issues. A good analogy is the relationship between IT governance and corporate governance.
IT governance refers to the practices and methodologies that ensure that the industry is managed properly, and corporate governance refers to the practices and methodologies that ensure that the corporation is managed properly.
IT governance is an important discipline, but it is important only to IT. Corporate governance, by contrast, affects the whole organisation. But because corporate governance relies so much on accurate and timely information, it is not possible without good IT governance and efficient information systems.
Similarly, Green IT is good, but it addresses IT only. IT has a much bigger role to play in the provision of information systems that enable organisations to greatly reduce their carbon footprint in more significant ways than simply making the IT process itself more energy-efficient.
Too many people are taking too limited a view of Green IT. It's all very well to reduce the power consumption of the data centre or of people's desktops, but just as IT has transformed business over the past generation, so it has the power to improve the implementation of the many new systems - of many kinds - that will be needed as we face the challenges of climate change.
The SMART 2020 report sums it up nicely: "The scale of emissions reductions that could be enabled by the smart integration of IT into new ways of operating, living, working, learning and travelling makes the sector a key player in the fight against climate change, despite its own growing carbon footprint.
"No other sector can supply technology capabilities so integral to energy efficiency across such a range of other sectors or industries. But with this potential comes responsibility. Emissions reductions in other sectors will not simply present themselves. IT must demonstrate leadership on climate change."
The opportunity is there. Will the industry grasp it?