Green veneer or green revolution?

Jos Creese, Head of IT, Hampshire County Council (Local Government Delivery Board, CIO Council and SOCITM Vice President)

The trouble is, ‘Green IT’ has a sort of fashionable ring about it. At one end of the spectrum it’s seen as being sustainable and organic, but with little practical business value – a sort of ‘green froth’. At the other end it is seen to be just about reducing energy consumption and marketing more environmentally sensitive manufacturing methods.
In reality, Green IT must be about much more. Technology is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and at a time of soaring demand for energy it really does offer the potential to help save the planet - if it is used and designed responsibly. 
Part of the problem is that no one seems to really know exactly what to do. Clearly switching off things when they are not in use makes practical sense. But beyond this things get a little more complicated.
Take for example bio-fuels – good or bad for the planet? The jury is out. The same goes for disposable versus traditional nappies. You would think these were the easy things to prove! Home working is more difficult, yet we are told it’s a good thing and most companies are pushing for more flexible working to save money and to reduce carbon footprint. I’d be the first to admit that flying to Brussels twice a week is probably not good for the planet. But for many businesses the most energy and carbon efficient approach is to squeeze as many people as possible in to a well-designed office block, even if they have to commute there, rather than all of us working in our own homes, with our own PCs, printers, lighting, heating etc. … not that I can prove it of course.
The trouble is that business has been quick to spot the savings from home working and of course the ability to claim carbon savings on the company ‘green’ balance sheet.
And then there are PCs. Not many people know that it is estimated that 80% of the ‘carbon cost’ of the life of a PC lies in its manufacture, not in its use or even its disposal. Yet we seem fixated on power ratings. The same goes for mobile phones – do we really need a new one every 12 months? Do they really all need different chargers and cables? The manufacturers thinks so, and few of us seem to resist those ‘free’ upgrades.
Of course, the big debate in IT is about data centres and the enormous power they consume and the energy they waste in heat. Whilst there is a great deal of good practice in consolidation, power management and heat reuse, there is still a risk that companies will choose to simply outsource their data centre carbon footprint to the far east and claim the benefit.
In all this, therefore, there must be a role for government and we are all braced for new regulations. Given the failure of market forces to control the banking sector there seems little hope in my view that market forces alone will bring about change in response to global climate issues until it’s too late.
So I am in favour of regulation to encourage ‘green’ behaviours and corporate social responsibility. But I am also a bit worried that regulation may be based on some of the misconceptions I’ve described, or at least some inadequate information about what really works.
Whilst recessionary pressures will inevitably pop the bubbles of any ‘green froth’, it will also stimulate considerable interest in technology to support more efficient ways of working, energy efficiency and more rigorous practices in acquisition, management and disposal of technologies. It might even encourage a wider and more sensible debate about how technology can contribute to more sustainable business practices and working behaviours. At least, that is my hope.
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