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Beyond Tele-Conferencing: How the IT Sector Can Become a Legitimate Climate Solutions Provider

Nowadays, the buzz is about next-generation tele-conferencing. Interestingly, unlike many advances in technology, it is being billed for its environmental benefits as much as its economic payback. Retailers of telepresence are joined by broadband providers in expounding the ways in which it enables tele-commuting, avoided business travel, and reduced office real estate. One industry study estimated that tele-commuting and tele-conferencing alone would eliminate 788 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years. The study almost seemed to downplay the economic benefits.

Why are the climate credentials of IT products suddenly borrowing the limelight from more traditional attributes like price, size, and reliability? Because the IT industry has long enjoyed a reputation as a “clean” industry, representing significant GDP growth relative to its greenhouse gas footprint(i) . And it has demonstrated phenomenal leaps in efficiency that would make Moore proud. Yet with the current policy discourse centered on climate change, the industry’s success may become a liability. Due to the tremendous growth in emerging markets and the increased demand for bandwidth to run increasingly sophisticated applications, the total greenhouse gas footprint of the IT industry, currently on par with aviation at 2%(ii) , is growing at approximately 6% a year(iii) . In fact, the industry has become the biggest buyer of electricity in some industrialized nations(iv) .

So leading companies have shrewdly tried to expand the conversation to include not only the negative impacts but the positive ones: while IT impacts are growing, they pale in comparison to the climate solutions available. A flurry of industry-commissioned reports on the subject differ in the exact ratio of impacts-vs.-solutions: a Climate Group study for the Global e-Sustainability Initiative claims the ratio is 1:5, a University of Bradford study  for BT claims 1:10, and a WWF study for HP audaciously implies that IT can address the remaining 98% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But whatever the exact ratio, the message is clear: IT has a high leverage role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy.

My concern is that the current discourse misses the forest for the trees. We have thus far focused on what environmental professionals call the “dematerialization” benefits of IT, those that substitute physical products for virtual information exchange. Yet what we don’t admit (at least, in public) is that the potential benefits of dematerialization – tele-conferencing being the most popular – are a) not panning out, and b) are relatively minimal compared to other applications of IT.

a)    They are not panning out because dematerialization suffers from a reliance on significant behavioral changes (e.g. “work at home but don’t make any extra trips by car”), cultural adjustments (e.g. “learn to collaborate and manage others virtually”), security assurances (e.g. “do your taxes on line…it’ll be fine”), and omnipresent high-quality digital services — so if you’re anywhere but Asia Pacific…good luck.
b)    They are relatively minimal because they only take on one contributor to our economy’s carbon footprint: vehicle miles traveled. And even then, it’s not always clear that the benefits of dematerialization aren’t offset by IT-enabled increases in material consumption(v) .

The real benefits come when we take advantage of IT as an enabler of evidence-based management. Without IT, we would not have evidence of climate change, because the sheer complexity of data collection and climatic modeling outstrips the computing power of the human brain. Without IT, we would not have traffic engineering, just-in-time delivery or day trading. In other words, IT can reveal the numbers behind seemingly complex and opaque systems.

Therefore, applied appropriately, IT systems can enable truly transformative change by ensuring that:
a)    industrial motors are equilibrated to fluctuations in demand and temperature;
b)    manufacturing processes minimize per unit energy by minimizing system failures;
c)    distributors consolidate warehousing and delivery space rather than “shipping air”;
d)    fleet and passenger vehicles interact wirelessly with route optimizing systems, toll operators, parking managers, and land use planners;
e)    commercial and residential buildings monitor their energy usage and communicate in real-time with power generation plants to avoid demand spikes;
f)    appliances calibrate their energy consumption to real-time user needs; and
g)    distributed renewable technologies can seamlessly sell back to the grid.

It is this power to peel back, layer by layer, the energy information behind our economy — and thereby enable optimal management of that energy — that will make IT a legitimate climate solutions provider.

Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is a corporate environmental strategy consultant to Environmental Defense Fund and BSR, where she combines expertise in environmental trends analysis, policy and metrics design, and management consulting.

i  Forum for the Future (2006) “Earth Calling: The Environmental Impacts of the Mobile Telecommunications Industry”, commissioned by Vodafone
ii  Gartner Inc. (2007) Presentation at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2007: Emerging Trends, San Francisco
iii  The Climate Group (2008) “Smart 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age”, a report on behalf of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, with analysis by McKinsey & Co.
iv  Moss, K. (2007) Interview with Kevin Moss, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Americas, BT
v  Forum for the Future (2006) “ICT as a Mode of Transport: A Review of the Use of Information and Communication Technology to Achieve Transport Policy Goals”; Woodrow Wilson Center, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, International Society of Industrial Ecology (2004) “The Environment and the Information Economy; Final Report”

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