Spotlight on IT: Going green with ICT

green IT data center
Emissions reduction in the IT industry is focused on energy efficient data centres. Image:

IT sales executive Elizabeth Duke is a technology junkie who tries to be environmentally friendly. She recycles, takes public transport to work and minimises energy use from air-conditioning and lighting. The Canadian-born expatriate living in Singapore is one of those who shares a wide-spread belief that information and communication technology, known as ICT or IT for short, helps people use resources more efficiently, but admits that the proliferation of gadgets in modern daily life has its downside too.

Some of the benefits are clear to her: For instance, she no longer has large piles ofnewspapers and magazines around the house because they have been replaced by digital versions. And whileshe still travels extensively for work, a significant number of business meetings are now done through teleconferencing rather than air travel.

But the daily use of a wide-range of IT gadgets has significant negative impacts on the environment too. Her householdof five contains eight working mobile phones, four tablet computers, three desktop computers, three laptop computers, plus a few handheld entertainment and gaming devices.

“I literally don’t do anything without some kind of technology in my hand,” said the 36-six-year-old.

When her gadgets are no longer used, she stows them in a drawer, admitting that she has no idea where to recycle them.

Apart from the electronic waste created by her devices, there are also embedded costs in her high-tech life, such as the large amount of energy needed to process data on the internet or the natural resources used for each upgrade to a new model.

But while Ms Duke may not be aware of the hidden footprints of her lifestyle, the encouraging thing is that IT companies are.

In fact, the spotlight has been on these firms as they become increasingly conscious of the large amount of energy consumed by the industry and its impact on the environment.

A recent ranking of the largest IT companies by Greenpeace on their energy and climate-related activities reflects this growing concern. It suggests that the industry should not only minimize the impact of its operations but also play an active role in helping other industries do so.

Greenpeace’s Cool IT Leaderboard ranked 21 IT giants for their progress towards reducing their own emissions, their innovations that enabled industries to be more environonmentally friendly and their efforts to support clean energy policies.

The Leaderboard singled out Japanese telecommunications company Softbank for setting “a new bar in advocacy leadership” as it had taken a strong stand against nuclear and fossil fuel energy following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Several IT companies such as Google, Cisco and Dell rated highly because over 20 per cent of the energy they used was from renewable sources.

“Technology giants have a real opportunity to use their power and influence to`change how we produce and use energy,” said Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook in a statement.

Greenpeace noted that Apple was not included because “it has not demonstrated leadership or elected to pursue market opportunities to drive IT energy solutions that many of its competitors have”.

United Kingdom-based Green IT Report director Pete Foster, who has been an IT industry analyst for over 25 years, told Eco-Business: “IT is now so central to all business that the sector has more of an influence in terms of carbon emissions than other industries.”

Mr Foster, whose consultancy firm advises businesses on reducing energy use and emissions through IT, noted that IT companies were early to establish their green cre$entials.

The IT industry stands to gain from pushing environmental sustainability because they can make businesses more efficient, he said.

IT has become integral to the way the world functions, and many cities are harnessing technologies that use IT to create smarter systems that reduce a city’s environmental impact.

Examples of these technologies, widely known as cleantech, include renewable energy, energy management for buildings and data centres, and tools to help organisations track their environmental impacts. They are also key in energy efficient manufacturing, low carbon transport, smart grids and smart meters.

As Singapore Economic Development Board’s (EDB’s) director of cleantech Goh Chee Kiong puts it: “We view IT as an enabler of many of the cleantech solutions we use.”

The EDB is involved in a number of pilot cleantech projects within Singapore that are IT based, such as the Intelligent Energy System (IES) project. Launched in 2009 by the EDB and Singapore’s Energy Market Authority, the IES is a test-bed for smart grid technologies by a range of international and domestic companies.

Singapore is also using IT innovations to expand systems for managing energy use in individual buildings to the district level.

Industrial developer JTC Corporation, for example, is implementing district-wide energy monitoring and management at its CleanTech Park -a high-tech industrial park located in western Singapore that was developed to test-bed and promote cleantech applications.

Energy hungry

But although IT is seen as an enabler for environmentally friendly technology, it also produces about two per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to a 2008 report from non-government organisation The Climate Group.

The report - the latest available - estimated that by 2020, there could be 50 billion machine-to-machine connections globally, most of which will be processed in the world’s energy-hungry data centres.

“The big concern is making data centres ‘greener’,” said Andrew Milroy, vice president of ICT research for global consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

Organisations are using IT more efficiently through cloud computing, but growth in IT usage still outstrips the efficiency benefits offered by the cloud, he noted.

Cloud computing allows companies and individuals to perform many of their computerised activities remotely over the internet or through private networks, with the result that they can reduce the number of inefficient servers they keep on hand.

The rapid growth in cloud computing applications is driving demand for new data centres, and increasing the industry’s energy use and carbon emissions.

A recent survey of 5,400 data centre owners, operators and suppliers found that data centres are likely to consume 19 per cent more electricity globally this year than in 2011. The report by UK-headquartered research firm Datacenter Dynamics noted that more than 40 per cent of those surveyed – from 70 different countries – confirmed that rising energy costs would have a major impact on their operations.

Yet, the growth in data centre energy consumption has been less than predicted in recent years partly due to better design and management.

A study done last year by Stanford University researcher Jonathan Koomey found that from 2005 to 2010, global data centre energy use grew by just 56 per cent rather than the 100 per cent previously forecasted. Professor Koomey attributed the slowing of growth to a combination of the global economic downturn and better technology.

Frost & Sullivan’s Mr Milroy said that not only were data centres becoming more efficient, their power sources were becoming cleaner thanks to a growing focus by data centre managers on using renewable energy.

For example, a recent Greenpeace campaign to get Facebook to ‘unfriend’ the use of coal-generated electricity in its data centres ended in December when the two parties issued a joint statement saying Facebook would stop using coal generated power for their data centres. They also agreed that both groups would support on-going research into data centre efficiency.

Michael Mudd, the Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific representative for an industry association called the Open Computing Alliance, said that in the last three to four years, much work has gone into greening data centres.

Data centre owners have begun cutting emissions by adopting measures that include relocating them to cooler climates or higher altitudes, where the cooling requirements will be reduced.

Other environmental initiatives come from data centre clients. For instance, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange has encouraged local brokerages to abandon their own data centres by offering them attractive rates within its new, highly efficient data centre. By consolidating servers within a single, energy efficient facility, overall costs and emissions are significantly reduced.

Within Asia, noted Mr Mudd, many of the data centres are powered by electricity derived from coal, so any reduction in energy use will have a positive impact on climate emissions.

But, he added that reports which focus on IT power consumption and carbon emissions fail to account for the emissions the industry replaces.

For instance, Cisco’s virtual conferencing software will add to the overall energy consumption from computing, but it will also save on emissions from aviation fuel when businesses forgo air travel. Last year, Cisco estimated it saved about 400 million gallons in aviation fuel, said Mr Mudd.

Consumption and waste

Energy consumption and carbon emissions may be the primary foci of IT sustainability experts, but they are not the only ones.

Frost & Sullivan’s Mr Milroy told Eco-Business that other difficulties come from the rapid proliferation of IT tools.

An explosion in the volume of personal computers and other IT devices, such as smart phones and tablets, has led to mounting problems with waste and resource consumption. Purchases of personal computers alone more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

A UN project called the Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE) has estimated that 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide every year. E-waste, which includes electrical appliances as well as IT products, currently accounts for more than five per cent of all municipal solid waste.

The problem has drawn international attention and led to the creation of the Basel Convention – an international treaty on the regulation of e-waste which as of June of last year had been ratified by over 175 countries.

Despite concerted efforts to deal with the issue, such as the European Union’s 2002 directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), the export of e-waste to developing countries has proven difficult to regulate and enforce.

Within Asia, countries importing e-waste – either legally or illegally – include China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Pakistan and India. And the methods for recycling are frequently insufficient, leading to ‘backyard’ recycling outfits where harmful toxins are not safely handled.

Manufacturers within the industry have reduced many of the harmful materials within their products, but face continued pressure to address the full, life-cycle impacts of their devices.

Such measures would include recycling the valuable metals and other resources that go into the products, reducing the energy consumed by the devices over their lifetimes and ensuring their eventual disposal is done in a responsible way.

Last year, students at the University of Limerick in Ireland won an award at an international design competition for a new company model designed to reduce e-waste. The students formed a company called P&D Inc that leases rather than sells easily recyclable laptops. When customers want to replace or upgrade their laptops, the company takes back the old ones and reuses or sells the pieces for another use (see video).

Mr Milroy noted that the industry has a long way to go in addressing the inefficient use of resources. “Recycling is a big issue for the industry. So many IT products are produced and not designed to be recycled,” he said.

Though the environmental challenges facing the industry may seem daunting, experts say it is in the best interest for IT firms to tackle them responsibly.

The Open Computing Alliance’s Mr Mudd noted that the IT industry has been ‘fairly aggressive in trying to burnish their CSR credentials’ to appeal to customers.

“If they can be seen as clean and green, it would differentiate them from the competition,” he said.

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