What is Sustainability and Green IT?

Will Roebuck suggests that global overpopulation really drives the sustainability and green IT agenda. But whilst we have a long way to go to achieve a more sustainable economy, organisations can still make small changes to the way they are using IT that can make a big difference to the drain on resources.

Sustainability and Green IT are now mainstream business, with carbon trading, waste recycling and renewable energies soaking up investment, creating jobs and driving growth. No longer the 'tree hugging' image everything green had just a few decades ago.

But we still have a long way to go in really understanding the long-term implications for a more sustainable planet. What's become important is the part individual organisations play in reducing their impact upon the environment. Environmentally-friendly use of IT ('Green IT') is just one area of business operations that boardroom directors need to address ...

Natural damage

The harm we have already wrought on the environment is staggering! According to data derived from the OECD's ten official indicators used to measure environmental damage, the global emission of carbon dioxide has risen 88% since 1971 and is expected to rise another 52% by 2030. Municipal waste has risen from 100 million to 650 million tonnes between 1980 and 2005, which works out at around 550 kg per inhabitant in OECD countries. 62% of municipal waste is buried in landfill sites whilst only 27% is recycled. In the UK, we already have a chronic housing problem caused, in part, by the shortage of land available for building. The demand to find landfill sites at the expense of the green belt only adds pressure to this spiralling problem.

Some evidence that the UK is now dumping its unwanted rubbish across developing countries also tars our credibility when participating in international debates on the environment.

We are all to blame for this sorry state of affairs. Industrialised countries continue to pursue aggressive policies on burning fossil fuels such as oil or coal to meet national energy demands; the amount of EU regulation on product labelling and packaging is outrageous; businesses remain focussed solely on the economic viability of products and services to satisfy their investors and shareholders; and the rest of us consumers, still have an ongoing love affair with power intensive technologies.

Somehow we have to reduce global population and restore Nature' fine balance. We need to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own requirements. Organisations have their own crucial role to play in championing this new philanthropic age.

Facts and figures

Here's some simple facts and figures to help put environmental damage into context for IT users.

  • Standard desk top computers alone use around 99% of their power for cooling and just 1% to think;
  • The Carbon Trust estimates that UK businesses waste some 10% - 20% of energy they buy through poor controls;
  • 70% of the cost of managing servers in data centres revolves around power and cooling;
  • Computers and monitors account for half of the electricity used in a typical office. Out of 10 million personal computers in UK offices, 1.8 million are regularly left switched on overnight. This wastes 1.5 million kWh of energy, amounting to 115 million kWh wasted energy in the UK every year.
  • Organisations waste around 7000,000 tonnes of carbon because workers do not switch off personal computers and monitors in the UK. This works out at 10% of the UK's climate change levy target set by the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Between April 2005 and March 2006, the total number of customer interruptions in the UK's National Grid was around 21 million, with 1,966 million customer minutes lost. Both business continuity and security become issues when power supplies are regularly interrupted.
  • Commercial organisations use between 3000 and 3500 million cubit metres of wood each year.

Respect; recycle; reduce

So what can we do?

  • Make simple changes to help your business save money and do things better. For example, switch off lights, power down computers at night, don't leave appliances on standby, recycle your rubbish
  • Look at what your suppliers, customers and competitors are doing. When bidding for government contracts you will need to demonstrate corporate social responsibility which includes elements of Green IT. Will your competitor get the contract because they can demonstrate that they understand the green agenda better than you?
  • Educate your staff. Many of them will be green-aware anyway through their dealings with domestic energy companies, purchasing locally-sourced products in the supermarket and budgeting for petrol. Strong organisational leadership is driven from the top, filters down through middle management and settles on the bottom line. Clear objectives, a defined strategy and measured activities ensure that everyone has a part to play in developing the organisation's eco culture.
  • All workers should have clearly-written policies that define how the organisation is implementing Green IT and have a mechanism for providing their own contributions to the eco-strategy. Typically, IT departmental policies cover recycling, waste management, print management, switching off personal computers, replacing CRT monitors with TFT screens, implementing server virtualization, looking for energy savings, and compliance and education of the user community.
  • Organisations can adopt a methodical approach to deal with known legal risks (preventative action) and to mitigate emerging legal risks (corrective action) through effective governance. A common risk management tool is illustrated in the diagram below.

  • Using a business-familiar risk management tool to deal with disputes is preferable to one that is not so easily understood. Risk management is owned at board level and cascades down through the organisation to ensure accountability and buy-in across all business activities. ISO 140001 for Environmental Management can measure the organisation' success makes good business sense to help deliver tangible business benefits around climate change. A dedicated green IT strategy should add value to the company rather than diverting attention away from the business itself, ensure ongoing security, and provide for business continuity.
  • A Standard Decommission and Disposal Agreement can set out the terms for the removal, cleaning, resale, further use or destruction of unwanted equipment. The agreement should include provisions on title and risk, ownership of intellectual property, health and safety, confidentiality and safeguarding of data, liabilities, warranties and dispute resolution.