Hacking through the green jungle

If you want to lead a guilt-laden and depressing life, get yourself a machete and try hacking your way through the environmental jungle. No sooner do you read a news report or a piece of research which raises your spirits, than you read another which dashes them down again.

"Government cuts emissions". Hooray. "MoD admits that a large slice of its savings resulted from the sale of QinetiQ to the private sector." Boo.

Of course it’s not just the government, it’s anyone and everyone. "Tebbutt slashes carbon in move to smaller home." Hooray. "But then flies to California to discuss sustainability with HP." Boo.

Life is full of these ghastly paradoxes. I was reading about Hewlett Packard’s amazing environmental savings. Just like IBM, Cisco and many other IT vendors, it appears to be doing a fine job of becoming planet friendlier. But then I read that the company had to spend billions of dollars to achieve these savings.

Someone once said ’no pain, no gain.’ It certainly seems to apply here.

To be fair, the environmental savings were a by-product of the restructuring of HP’s IT system. It set out to halve the annual IT bill from four percent to two percent of revenue. And, with a turnover of $109bn, it’s not difficult to do the sums. ’Billions’ spread over the project’s three years could have been a bargain with savings of over $2bn per annum.

Making the decision to spend real money today is not easy. It’s a bit like deciding whether to keep the old car with its naff fuel consumption or buy a new car which sips the juice and get a payback eventually. And it’s not just a financial issue. The new car comes loaded with an embedded footprint but this, too, will eventually be compensated for by the reduced emissions. Not an easy calculation.

Whether it’s cars or computers, you still have the awkwardness of what to do with the stuff you’re abandoning. I think the HP kit got re-used if the spec’ was up to it or sold on if not.

The opening paragraph of IBM’s Vision for the New Enterprise Data Center says "You can’t make the world move slower. Or change where markets are headed." This is a fact of 21st century life. And, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that HP’s percentage of IT spend is firmly tied to turnover. HP, like all the other global vendors,  has huge aspirations in the emerging markets, so the cost of its IT in absolute terms will rise again. And, along with that, so will the HP’s impact on the environment. Back to those ghastly paradoxes.

HP isn’t alone of course. Listen very carefully when other companies talk of reducing emissions by x percent. You’ll find that most of them are talking about per employee, per citizen or per unit of output. In other words, it’s still an increase in impact on the planet. I have to take my hat off to Cisco which, when challenged on this very issue, said that its planned carbon savings are in absolute terms rather than relative to its growth.

As I’ve mentioned before, ICT does have the saving grace of helping to cut emissions from other parts of the organisation – travel, transport, smart grids and so on – depending on the nature of the business. 

If we get the equation right, we can exchange the guilt and depression for a net bottom-line gain and a corresponding benefit for the planet.

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