Green IT – Moving Beyond the 2% Solution


Over the last 18 months, the topic of Green IT has rapidly emerged, both in the media and on our clients’ agenda.When we began researching this issue early in 2007, our goals were to develop a holistic perspective that encompassed the key environmental dimensions of the IT business, to identify the most important Green IT challenges and opportunities, and to assess current business strategies and practices. The result is this initial Position Paper, which presents our overall point of view, and sets the stage for additional workbook and case study projects to be conducted in 2008 and beyond.

Green IT – Moving Beyond the 2% Solution

The need for a broad perspective has proved especially important in this project. To fully understand the implications of Green IT, we had to go beyond our traditional focus on enterprise IT usage, and consider the energy-intensive processes used in IT hardware manufacturing as well as the energy-saving value of IT to the wider economy. Indeed, the most fundamental finding of this project is that the rapid obsolescence implicit in Moore’s Law is inherently environmentally unfriendly, and that this places a special burden on our industry to use IT to further the greater environmental good.

We have found that much of the current Green IT emphasis is misplaced. It focuses almost exclusively on data centres and PC power management, which together account for only about 2 percent of overall energy usage. While more attention must be paid to the considerable energy used in IT manufacturing, it is the huge potential energy savings that IT can bring to the wider economy that will create the most important business opportunities. Hence the title of this paper: Green IT – Moving Beyond the 2% Solution.

Figure 1 – Key research themes

  1. Getting past the climate change debate
  2. Developing a wider strategic perspective
  3. Understanding Green IT usage vs. manufacturing
  4. Determining the role of Enterprise IT
  5. Learning from examples of Green IT in action 6. Developing an initial action plan

This paper is organized according to the themes listed in Figure 1. We start (Figure 2) by briefly summarizing the current climate change debate, with the emphasis on why, even while considerable scepticism remains, the discussion is already shifting into the action phase; and how leading businesses are responding.

We then (Figure 10) establish the need to adopt a wider perspective that distinguishes between the energy consumed in using IT products and the energy consumed in manufacturing countless billions of semiconductors, disk drives, displays, power supplies, batteries and other IT components. We show that reducing data centre energy usage and turning off inactive PCs can save real money and is good environmental hygiene, but it will not result in truly Green IT.

The bulk of our research going forward will seek to identify areas where information technology can deliver significant environmental improvements (Figure 16). The potential energy savings from smart products, online commerce, consolidated office space, more efficient logistics and reduced travel are far greater than anything that can be done solely on the IT side, and this is where the real Green IT opportunities lie. To manage the required systems, measure progress and demonstrate compliance, companies will need accurate information, and this will become an important role for Enterprise IT (Figure 20).

Finally, since most of our clients are still in the very early stages of addressing these issues, we conclude this paper with a four-step framework for getting started (Figure 26). Looking ahead, we see environmental management as yet another.

Enterprise IT application and yet another competency that IT will need to develop, support and maintain. Fortunately, these are tasks that many employees and business partners are keen to embrace, and thus Green IT can become an important change agent and motivational tool.

Figure 2 –We’ve certainly been warned

Figure 2 –We’ve certainly been warned

While we at the LEF don’t normally enter into wider political, economic and scientific debates, the topic of Green IT is so closely linked to the issue of global warming that we felt that we had to address this wider context in order to develop an effective point of view. In the next few pages we compare the perspectives of global warming’s proponents and of the sceptics, and then establish the working assumptions that leading companies are using to move forward.

For more than a decade, the warnings about climate change have become more vehement and more dire. Virtually all world governments, NGOs and leading environmental organizations now agree that rising greenhouse gas levels are resulting in a warmer climate that is a potentially serious danger to humanity. Among the most frequently cited risks are rising sea levels, more severe storms, extended droughts, and the likely adverse impact on crops, wildlife, the oceans and other environmental systems.

Dramatically reducing current and future CO2 emissions is seen as the most sensible response, but progress has not been easy. Unlike clean air and clean water projects, the benefits of carbon reductions by any one city or even any one country are much more indirect. In economic terms, this means that traditional free-rider problems are more challenging than in other environmental realms, which is why many believe that only an unprecedented level of global coordination (such as cap and trade) can succeed.

But strict international controls are an inherently tough sell, especially in America and many developing countries. This helps explain the need for attention-grabbing forecasts and powerful public symbolism (such as Al Gore winning both the Nobel Peace Prize and a Hollywood Oscar). The environmental movement has focused on gaining verbal commitments first, with tough regulations and serious behavioural changes mostly put off until later.


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