How ICT can help broad environmental initiatives

For some time, I’ve been banging on about the opportunities for ICT to improve the environmental performance of organisations, even if it results in more energy use by the data centre. The whole point is leverage. It’s like spending a few hundred pounds on new tyres to avoid an expensive accident. Probably a lousy analogy, but it’s enough to introduce a report called The potential global CO2 reductions from ICT use. The subtitle is ’Identifying and assessing the opportunities to reduce the first billion tonnes of CO2’.

If that sounds dull as ditchwater to you, then all you need to know is that ICT, instead of being that perceived gobbler of ludicrous amounts of energy, can help us turn things around and save even more energy elsewhere. In fact, the report identifies and explains ten areas of solid opportunity. It looks at both savings and side effects, not all of which are good. But, in general, the good outweighs the bad, usually by a substantial margin.

The ten areas covered are: Smart city planning; Smart buildings; Smart appliances; Dematerialisation services; Smart industry; I-optimisation; Smart grid; Integrated renewable solutions; Smart work; and Intelligent transport. If, like me, you’re puzzled by I-optimisation, it’s about designing production plants.

The report was written by Ecofys for the World Wildlife Fund and was sponsored by Hewlett Packard. Ecofys made a substantial contribution (eleven authors) to the report from the IPCC which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

This kind of backdrop made me nervous. Will HP force an IT industry view on the content? Will the authors be ’right on’ environmentalists? Apart from a bit of a plug for HP’s Halo teleconferencing, I’ve not read anything so far that makes me uneasy. Apart, of course from the obsession with greenhouse gases, and CO2 in particular. Judging from our (Freeform Dynamics) research, as long as environmental action improves operating margins and helps conform to upcoming regulations, then what’s not to like?

The report (which, I confess, I’m still only two thirds of the way through) comments on, and draws from, all the important literature on the subject. It highlights the gaps in our knowledge, of which there are many. And it offers us an extensible taxonomony which will enable us to discuss and compare our information on the subject in a mutually comprehensible way. It also provides a number of tables for each application area with anticipated impacts under different scenarios. Where the future is concerned, some of it has to be of the best/worst/middle estimate variety. But, without question, this sort of thing provides a good framework for thinking about the issues clearly. And, indeed, for mapping what will probably be a growing body of ever more detailed knowledge on the subject.

Existing information ranges from anecdotal to the specific. But each has its place – too much detail would be unwelcome if ’raising awareness’ but vital if being used to set government policy. The report notes that most of the material (although not all – there’s some good stuff from China) relates to the developed economies. Yet, many of the challenges and, indeed, the opportunities, lie in the developing economies. Cleverly-designed buildings can achieve zero or even a negative operational carbon footprint. But, of course, the construction materials cannot be side-stepped and both steel and concrete happen to be notorious contributors to CO2 emissions.

I have to say that at one point, I thought the report did go into la-la land. It started speculating about a future possibility of private cars doubling up as public transport. Can you imagine the issues: public liability insurance, the nightmare of an accident, the danger of predatory drivers or predatory ride-seekers for that matter? I’ll put that one down as a ’no’, no matter how environmentally desirable.

Having said that, this was the only time thus far that I felt the report veered away from a pragmatic assessment of the possibilities that face us.

Anyone who has to consider environmental issues in the context of ICT will find this report helpful. It provides a baseline for thinking about how ICT can help organisations achieve their fiscal and regulatory obligations at the very least. We know from our research that staff will generally welcome such measures, a potential PR benefit exists in the short term and shareholder benefit in the longer term. And all this with  an environmental by-product.

I think these authors have done a fine job of parsing the current state of our knowledge into identifiable and potentially measurable components. Were we to forget our knee-jerk instincts to reject NIH (Not Invented Here) and accept this as a basis for future discussion, it will have served its purpose and raised the level of debate.

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