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Why Green IT Is Better IT

Why Green IT Is Better IT

Global regulations that put limits on toxic chemicals and emissions now reach from the manufacturing floor into the data centre

The report on global warming issued in February by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes unequivocally that our planet is getting hotter. And, as we approach Earth Day April 22, the evidence that it's all our fault is stronger than ever.

As we go about our busy lives, running our ever more powerful, ever more ubiquitous computers, we are effectively turning up the planet's thermostat. Gartner estimates that carbon dioxide emissions related to the operation of servers and PCs account for 0.75 percent of the annual global total, and that's before factoring in emissions generated by cooling the boxes.

Companies today face a panoply of environmental issues, from how much electricity they consume to how they deal with toxic wastes

Add to that the emissions generated by telecommunications networks, and IT's contribution to the atmosphere's greenhouse gas load is "probably in excess of 2 percent", says Simon Mingay, research vice president with Gartner, adding that that's "a big number for what is essentially a single device". In fact, emissions tied to that device, the computer, are comparable to the level of greenhouse gases being produced by all the world's aeroplanes as they crisscross the skies above us.

Now what are CIOs doing about that?

Green goes mainstream

Companies today face a panoply of environmental issues, from how much electricity they consume (produced by power plants that run on fossil fuels) to how they deal with toxic wastes. But in most enterprises the CIO has played a minimal role in decisions that affect the environment. For the most part, no one has asked them to do anything more.

But sooner rather than later, someone — your boss, a big customer or a government agency — is going to want to know what you're doing to comply with, support or advance your company's efforts to become more environmentally responsible. This demand will not stem merely from an altruistic desire to behave responsibly (although that's a fine reason); rather, corporate sustainability (as being cognizant of your impact on the planet is now called) has become a cost of doing business. Global regulations that put limits on toxic chemicals and emissions now reach from the manufacturing floor into the data centre.

And having an understanding of and an appreciation for one's effect on the environment increasingly is proving to be good for the bottom line. A recent report concluded that there's a direct correlation between good environmental practices and sound overall management. The report's authors — Marc Orlitzky, a lecturer with the Australian Graduate School of Management, and Frank L Schmidt and Sara L Rynes, both professors with the University of Iowa — say good corporate citizenship can help companies build the skills and infrastructure they need to cope in turbulent times, as well as improve efficiency.

Daniel Esty, director of the Center of Business and Environment at Yale University, points to a multitude of examples in which employing IT that attends to the planet helps companies cut costs or raise revenue. "One of the key tools that companies have used to develop an eco-advantage is good data collection," says Esty, coauthor, with Andrew Winston, of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value and Build Competitive Advantage. "Having a strong set of metrics and indicators allows companies to manage inputs better, reduce waste and achieve higher productivity," Esty maintains.

The cost-benefit analysis

Charity begins at home, and the CIO's responsibilities start with the IT department. According to Gartner, the pervasiveness of computing equipment in most companies makes the IT department a major source of negative environmental impact.

Mitigating that impact will have its cost. All your hardware contains toxic materials that in many places must be recycled. The European Union recently toughened regulations for disposing of old computers; other nations and many US states also have rules for recycling electronics. Meanwhile, new equipment, designed to be energy efficient and comply with regulations for use of toxic substances, may become more expensive if vendors decide to charge a premium for green products.

But the good news is that every company with a data centre has a vein of green waiting to be mined. "Any organization that wants to improve its environmental footprint is going to look at power consumption," notes Mingay. "If the company is a professional services, banking or insurance kind of business, IT will probably be the biggest consumer of power by a long way."

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