Post-Copenhagen, does green IT matter?

It’s difficult to talk about “green IT” without coming across as a techno-apologist. However much suppliers lay claim to having the most tree-huggingly planet friendly technologies available, the indisputable, unavoidable, insurmountable truth is that IT is largely about wiring up and plugging in sometimes large pieces of equipment, which need to be manufactured, powered during their lifetime and eventually disposed of.

What can get lost in the noise of the “My thing runs more efficiently than your thing” debate, is that without said things, it would be difficult to get much done. We’re stuck with stuff, from toothbrushes, kitchen knives and washing machines, to mobile phones and storage arrays. For a species blessed with larger brains and opposing thumbs, stuff is actually quite handy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for minimal-impact IT. But that brings me to the other thing that frequently gets drowned in the noise – the fact that IT is merely a tool. This point may be sacrilege for an IT audience, but it needs to be said: the only way that we can really think about the green impact of IT is in the context of what IT enables for businesses and individuals, rather than what it is in absolute terms.

But hang on – who cares? After all, if the world’s governments can’t agree on what to do about climate change, do we really need to think about green IT right now?

It is perhaps too early to judge (though many already have) whether Copenhagen was a failure – only hindsight will say. But one thing is for sure – it was certainly a waypoint for many individual journeys. Some countries, such as the Maldives, are by necessity at a very different stage in their thinking to the US and China for example, but while general agreement has not yet been struck on all the answers, momentum is everywhere to be seen.

The very nature of these journeys is illustrative of a single point: that people or governments or organisations only tend to make decisions when they are compelled to, either because it is clearly in their interest, or because they have no choice. From an IT perspective, this is what makes ‘compliance’ such an interesting word – bluntly, companies spend money on technology to help reduce the cost of compliance because they have to, not because they want to.

We’re seeing compliance start to kick in following on from the emissions trading agreements initiated at Kyoto and extended, if not completely, at Copenhagen. More interesting perhaps is when we see agreements beget legislation, and thence regulations such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment in the UK.

Now, I’m no expert on the chapter and verse of such things. But what is clear to the outsider is that the devil is in the detail, which is perhaps why it is all taking so long to ratify.

As a knock-on effect, CRC is currently limited to the top 5,000 UK organisations according to their emissions. But it does stand to reason that this will broaden to encompass companies that are currently below the threshold. Eventually.

Now, before all you mid-sized organisations issue the order to stand down, let’s recall that it’s about what IT enables, rather than what IT is. Whichever statistics you choose to quote, IT is only a few percentage points of an organisation’s total carbon footprint. Sure, there will always be merit in trying to reduce this figure in absolute terms, no point in wasting valuable resources unnecessarily – but it’s not going to get you much closer to the answer.

Meanwhile, we have “what IT enables”. Now, the fact is that IT has a long history of underachieving for a whole number of reasons. The theory was (and indeed remains) that IT would help drive super-agile, hyper-efficient businesses. However, the reality for many organisations is that the business trudges on, as inefficient as ever, with an overlay of automation that sometimes seems to be more about keeping the corporate lights on than adding any inherent business value.

So, here’s the point. With or without the green imperative, IT has a massive, still largely untapped role to play in making the business run far more efficiently. If we do think about this in carbon terms, this equates to the 98 per cent of corporate emissions. But it also equates to a substantial proportion of financial costs, service metrics and performance indicators, all of which can have scope for significant improvement.

In practical terms, this does not have to be about ‘transformation’ in any grandiose fashion. What it actually boils down to is good governance, such that IT delivery is appropriately mapped to the needs and priorities of the business. This does require some thinking about – after all, even smaller organisations can be pretty complex. But this doesn’t make it any less important.

IT is powerful stuff, but as long as it is implemented reactively, it will only have a limited impact. Meanwhile, of course, if IT is used in such a way as to improve, change or even eliminate processes, and thus improve carbon impact, there’s plenty to get excited about.

Perhaps I’m fooling myself. But I’ve seen too many examples of where doing the right thing actually works. The opportunity exists to deliver IT in the right manner, in a way that it actually achieves its objectives – be it in terms of unifying business communications, helping decision makers access the information they need, or consolidating infrastructure and rendering it more responsive to changing needs through virtualisation, better management tools and so on.

But as with the therapists trying to screw in a light bulb, the light bulb is going to have to want to change. We know from a variety of research projects (here and here) that smarter business leaders and IT leaders get the value of IT, and how to make best use of it. For such leaders, green IT becomes as much of a spin-off benefit as a goal.

I remember a conversation with a senior executive at a networking company about how the company’s clients were able to benefit from a whole raft of clever features to drive their business more efficiently. “Is anyone actually doing it?” I asked. “In honesty, some. But they’re the smarter ones,” came the answer.

This goes right to the heart of what we mean by sustainability. Other organisations, I’m sure, are doomed to spend eternity on the back foot, running inefficiently and falling foul of whatever legislation comes their way. But for others, who are not afraid to take the initiative and look at how IT can really make them more efficient and effective, there is all to play for.

For these organisations, if and when regulations come into force, the chances are they will find out they are already there. In the meantime, they will have benefited from all the gains that come from running a tight ship in the first place.

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