A holistic approach to green IT is essential

Green computing is an admirable objective ­ – but because the strategy focuses on computing itself, it often fails to consider the wider environmental problems that face the world.

Even labelling the green computing issue as “environmental” does not really do the trick. The better approach is to start with “sustainable development” and work back from there.

According to the 1987 Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future, sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The report took an international view of sustainability and applied it to employment, food, energy, water and sanitation. We sometimes forget that if our computer equipment is made in China, its water and ground pollution largely stays there, while the gaseous emissions are shared with the whole world.

The only truly environmental way of accounting for our choices is to look at the lifecycle impact of what we buy and throw away. That includes everything from raw materials through construction, packaging, delivery, use and disposal.

Anything less than this is just playing at being green.

Of course, such an approach is also inconvenient. It is very difficult to discover the carbon footprint of what we buy – ­ it is much easier to find out how much energy something uses for our base calculations.

As such, you rarely hear IT vendors talking about embedded carbon and other pollution in the products they try to convince IT managers to buy. And it is why governments are so keen to focus on pricing carbon and setting targets.

Some 5,000 British companies will be obliged to sign up for the Carbon Reduction Commitment in 2010, which will make businesses measure their carbon emissions to see how they compare year on year. League tables will be published and some firms will be rewarded with bonuses, while others will be punished with fines.

The commitment will focus minds. But companies will analyse their emissions ­ – including those they inherit with their energy supplies ­ – and may decide to offshore polluting elements of their work. The result will be a nice, clean UK operation and no reprimands for embedded carbon. As a result, the company in question might be obeying the letter of the law ­ – but hardly its spirit.

So, what will drive companies to do the right thing? Money and regulation are top of the list. Brand value, corporate social responsibility and public relations are all closely intertwined.

Many companies need to be seen to be environmentally sensitive and if you work for such a firm, life will be relatively easy. These businesses concentrate on working with management and examine every corner of the business to discover opportunities to be greener.

However, if money and regulations drive the firm, every green decision needs to be costed. If regulations are involved, penalties are usually not far away.

As such, the equation still boils down to money ­ – and you are wasting your time trying to appeal to the firm’s better nature. Sooner or later, though, the company will come under customer or shareholder pressure to act greener, especially if it is part of a supply chain to more committed businesses.

Centre attention on the areas that will make a difference but require little or no investment – ­ switch off desktops at night, print fewer documents, turn off power chargers when they are not in use, turn off lights if no one is around.

Extend the period between machine replacements and find ways to reuse retired equipment. The Met Office, for example, sends its end-of-life computers to other measuring stations around the world.

Your next stage should be to look at virtualisation, which can help cut the amount of equipment you need or allow you to take on more work without buying new PCs. You might also be able to optimise your datacentre cooling without massive upheaval. And going even further, large companies can benefit from consolidating multiple datacentres, which can reduce electricity use and other associated costs.

But IT has a much bigger role to play in helping a company achieve good environmental performance.

Technology can help reduce energy use and other pollution in areas which are beyond IT’s remit.

Publishing reference materials online ­ – catalogues, manuals, directories and so on ­ – saves on print, transport and packaging. Videoconferencing can save time and money ­ – and the stresses of work life can be diminished, too.

Home working can also help employees dodge the commute and, depending on how many people do it and for how many days, can also reduce office size and the associated costs.

n a recent survey, Freeform Dynamics discovered that only 28 per cent of IT departments actually know how much energy they use. And, no doubt, the figure would be even smaller if the question were asked with regards to the total IT estate.

If you belong to such a company, perhaps the most effective starting point for everything would be to obtain a copy of its bills. This approach might lead to more granular metering, so that you can see where to apply new measures for saving energy.

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