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Turning Info Tech into Clean Tech

An industry that is rapidly increasing its carbon emissions has untapped potential to help mitigate global climate change.

Ordering a product from Amazon.com is probably better for the environment than driving to the mall. Videoconferencing certainly beats hopping on an airplane. Google calculates that it can process 10,000 searches for the same amount of energy as one five-mile car trip. But while information technology may be greener than the things it replaces, the carbon footprint of the world’s data centers and computer networks is growing so fast that it already rivals that of the aviation industry, according to past studies.

With info tech on pace to consume two trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity globally by 2020, some companies in the industry are seeking to soften the blow. In its “Cool IT” study, released last month, the environmental group Greenpeace ranked 17 of the world’s largest IT firms for their “efforts to build energy-slashing innovations, mitigate their own energy footprints, and support groundbreaking climate and energy policies.” The result paints a cloudy picture of the present with a few bright spots for the future: all but three companies scored below 50 out of a possible 100 points. The report concluded that the sector as a whole must wake up to overcome “entrenched dirty energy interests.”

Who’s cleaning up?The “Cool IT” Leaderboard scores info tech companies based on three kinds of efforts: providing technology solutions to climate change, reducing their own carbon emissions, and advocating green public policies. Credit: Greenpeace

The report praised Cisco, Fujitsu, and Ericsson for their efforts to power data centers with renewable energy and create carbon-cutting technologies. But the IT sector’s efforts will have a bigger impact when companies begin to see themselves as a catalyst for change in other industries. If electric vehicles, smart buildings, solar panels, and wind turbines are the bricks of the low-carbon economy, the report says, “then IT technologies are the mortar that holds it all together.”

Examples of this kind of change include IBM’s smart-grid initiative and Google’s efforts to fund an undersea cable off the Atlantic coast to connect future offshore wind farms to the grid. Yet Google was penalized in the report for refusing to disclose its overall carbon footprint. Meanwhile, IBM was hit for failing to advocate green public policies. Greenpeace suggested that some IT companies may be reluctant to so for fear of angering large utilities and energy companies who are major customers.

But by working with utilities, construction firms, shipping companies, and car makers, the IT sector could make changes that slash global greenhouse-gas emissions while saving money and generating new growth. By 2020, according to a report from the nonprofit policy firm the Climate Group, changes in IT could reduce human-generated emissions worldwide by up to 7.8 billion tons—nearly the amount of carbon now emitted annually by all of China, or about 15 percent of the total emissions that would be expected if nothing changed.

Even if those numbers are exaggerated, the point is well taken. As more and more human activity shifts to information networks, we shouldn’t allow cell-phone towers and racks of servers to become the new smokestacks.

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