IT's Carbon Footprint


by Samuel Greengard

Hardly a day goes by without someone somewhere dismissing sustainability and assorted green initiatives as a fringe idea or a socialist plot (back in the day it would have been labeled a communist plot but since communists are no longer a serious threat we've got a new and improved menace!). However, whether you like it or not, the pixels are written on the wall: efforts to curtail carbon emissions are gaining steam.

Over the next few years, it's likely that some type of cap and trade system will appear in the U.S. The European Union already has the largest multi-national, emissions trading scheme in the world in place. Large emitters of carbon dioxide within the EU must monitor and annually report their CO2 emissions, and they are obliged every year to return an amount of emission allowances to the government that is equivalent to their CO2 emissions in that year.

In other words, it's becoming more difficult to run and hide. But this evolving situation has other repercussions. According to a recently released 18-month study conducted by Rice University researchers, unless the IT industry adopts new energy-efficient technologies, it runs a serious risk of being unable to contribute to growing the global economy. If limits are placed on carbon emissions, enterprises could find themselves staring down serious problems over the coming decade.

"In the face of growing global concerns over greenhouse carbon emission, the key for the industry is finding new technologies that deliver more performance for each kilogram of CO2 emitted," noted Rice computer scientist Krishna Palem, who directs ISAID, a joint institute of Rice and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

It's time for IT executives to take notice. In the U.S. in 2009, the economic output of the information and communication technology industry per kilogram of CO2 emitted was about $2.83. In a "business-as-usual scenario" this output will fall to about $1.06 per kilogram of CO2 by 2020, researchers noted.

"Based on those numbers, the industry is headed for a brick wall if limits are placed on CO2 emissions. In a carbon-constrained economy, green innovation will be absolutely essential for ICT profitability," says study co-author Chris Bronk, a fellow in technology, society and public policy at the Baker Institute and lecturer of computer science at Rice University.

The problem is likely to grow worse in the months and years ahead. Calculations show that global carbon emissions related to PCs and laptops, which accounted for 48.5 percent of all global ICT emissions in 2009, will nearly quadruple by 2020. Data center-related emissions will more than triple by 2020.

The bottom line? Sustainability is no longer a [fill in the blank] plot or some wacky concept. It's reality. Embrace green or see red.