Making the world a greener place: Decreasing ICT’s carbon footprint

In recognition of Earth Day on 22 April, this post examines how ICTs and we, as ICT users, can reduce carbon emissions.

Did you know that :-

  • The manufacture and use of ICTs account for approximately 2% of global carbon emissions – around the same as the aviation sector?
  • Energy consumption costs for a PC exceeds its purchase price over its lifetime?
  • PCs (and monitors) contribute almost 40% to ICT’s global carbon emissions, while servers contribute approximately 23%?
  • Fixed and mobile telecoms contribute around 24% to ICT’s global carbon emissions?
  • In the US and UK, over 20 billion kWh a year is wasted due to leaving PCs switched on overnight?

The carbon footprint from ICT is expected to overtake those from the aviation industry. By 2020, estimates are that it will produce about 1.54 metric Gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually(McKinsey). Key contributors to the continued increase in those emissions are:

  • the rapid deployment and use of ICTs, most notably PCs, in developing economies, especially India and China
  • the worldwide take-up of mobile phones, which use silicon and some rare metals in their fabrication
  • the number and sizes of data centres and computing networks that are being established, which most significantly affects electricity consumption.

Worldwide, the anticipated growth in ICT’s carbon footprint is being given urgent attention. However, there is also an appreciation that ICT can assist other industries to substantially cut their own carbon emissions. Hence the approach that is being applied is two-pronged: to foster greener ICTs, and to use ICTs to make businesses more efficient (and greener).

Greener ICTs

“Green ICT” primarily speaks to using technology to manage the power and cooling consumption of computing systems and data centres. The ultimate goal however, is environmental sustainability from fabrication to disposal. Depending on the device, the more significant contributors to its carbon footprint are the materials and energy used in their manufacture, than the power that is consumed during their operation. This is particularly the case for low-powered equipment such as mobile phones. On the other hand, for equipment such as PC and servers, the emphasis is reversed. Their operation contributes considerable more to their carbon footprint than the materials and energy used in their production. Hence focusing on PC and servers, greener choices that could be implemented include:

  • turning off idle PCs
  • using lower power or more energy efficient equipment, e.g. laptops instead of desktop PCs
  • implementing server virtualisation as appropriate to reduce server numbers and data centre sizes
  • bearing in mind concerns about cloud computing, considering Hardware as a Service (HaaS) options
  • employing energy efficient cooling options.

Greener businesses

Although it is a long held fact that ICTs can increase business productivity, until recently, little emphasis had been given to its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributed to those businesses. By 2020, with concerted effort, expectations are that ICT use could reduce global emissions from other industries by up to 15%. The intervention requires action in three key areas:

  • increasing business efficiency, by using ICTs to optimise business and industry processes
  • dematerialisation, by replacing physical media, such as printed documents, CDs and DVDs, with downloadable and web-based options
  • decreasing travelling, by placing more emphasis on virtual meetings and conference calls.

“Greening” ICTs in the region

In the Caribbean, we do not yet have a consciousness geared to environmental protection and sustainability. Often the terms are thrown around in relation to a few industries, such as tourism, agriculture and fisheries, but across our society we really are not imbued with “thinking green”.

A key impetus for us as individuals and even businesses, to begin to embrace “Green ICT” might be our pocket. If computing and telecoms devices are contributing almost 50% to global carbon emissions from ICTs, imagine what it could be contributing to our electricity bills? Further, the recent political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa are affecting oil prices, which have been relatively high for a number of years. Based on recent history, we are unlikely to experience any substantial and sustained decreases in fuel prices that could justify us disregarding the situation we are facing. We therefore need to be proactive in reducing our direct and indirect energy costs, especially those generated by ICTs.

The options suggested to reduce carbon emissions range from the mundane and obvious, to those that would require planning and investment for successful implementation. However, as owners and users of ICT equipment, it is to our individual and collective benefit as world citizens to use them efficiently, but also to do what we can to cut global greenhouse gas emissions and save our environment.

Do you know what your personal carbon footprint is? Calculate it here.


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