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IT Must Change Course on Environment

IT Must Change Course on Environment

It’s time for IT to start taking environmental issues more seriously

Australia's newspapers are gorging on advertisements flogging special Vista deals. Local computer retailers want a slice of the action promised by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who at the US launch of Vista said "The installed base of PCs is about a billion. To ship a billion upgrades and new machines is not going to be one year and it's not going to be five. It's probably something in between."

Which begs the question - where are the replaced PCs going to end up?

Deep in the bowels of the garage are three old CPUs, two screens, two dial-up modems, a laser printer and an inkjet printer, and there they will stay until I, or my local council can work out an environmentally responsible way to get rid of them. How many other garages are clogged with computers, not to mention corporate discards which can run to tens of thousands of machines each year?

This year, global spending on IT purchases and services will reach $US1.55 trillion ($A2 trillion), according to Forrester Research. It's about time the purveyors of the products invested some R&D effort into working out not just what new stuff to sell but what to do with old stuff when it has to be replaced, and also paid more than lip service to reducing the emissions of their systems when they are still in use.

There are various claims about how much energy computers use and the waste they produce. Last year's United Nations sponsored environmental conference held in Nairobi heard that up to 50 million tonnes of e-waste (computers, printers, mobile phones) are generated internationally each year - more than 5 percent of all municipal solid waste.

That's only when you are done with them. By some estimates running a PC round the clock for a year produces 716kg of carbon, while leaving a PC with a screensaver running through a single night uses enough energy to microwave 44 meals.

Late in 2007 Gartner released a list of ten New Year's Resolutions for CIOs. At number two was the exhortation that CIOs "start tracking and improving the environmental performance of IT in your business".

While Gartner hedges its bets on climate change by noting "Whether it's real or just a widespread perception" it warns that if the IT industry stays on the same course it will be seen as part of the environmental problem. According to Gartner in enterprises with low total environmental impact - companies that don't make steel or fly planes - the information technology operations are probably the biggest environmental overhead.

It suggests CIOs: "Set targets for IT's contribution to electrical efficiency, recycling, travel reduction and equipment life cycle management and add environmental sustainability to selection criteria for equipment services and vendors." At present though it's a case of "nice to" rather than "must do".

In 2006 the federal government's Corporate and Markets Advisory Committee handed down a report concerning the social responsibility of corporations, which paid particular attention to the environmental obligations of organizations. CAMAC decided that while companies should act in an environmentally responsible fashion, they shouldn't be legislated into it.

It's a bit like saying to a teenager "we'd really like it if you'd tidy up your room, but you don't have to". Well just like the teenager, if we want to keep living here, we have to.

The evidence pointing to global warming has reached its tipping point and can't be ignored. The United Nations' report on climate change, the UK Stern report and Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth all point to catastrophes ahead if we continue to ignore the problem. Even John Howard and his newly-minted environment minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledge there's a problem (just don't mention Kyoto).

Consumers buying white goods such as fridges or washing machines often check how many "stars" machines have to ensure they are buying energy efficient machines. It's time environmental ratings were taken more seriously by information technology suppliers. As younger, more environmentally sensitive consumers start buying computers, the smart IT companies will be those which invest in sustainable practices, winning themselves a higher profile as a responsible corporate citizen, but also carving out a significant marketing edge.

And I might get the car in the garage.

Beverley Head is a freelance writer who has been writing about the relationships between people, business and technology for over 20 years

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