​A changing climate creates opportunities for IT

Is Green IT a fix for global warming?
Green eyes required. Photo by Danielle Elder (Flickr).

Green eyes required. Photo by Danielle Elder (Flickr).

With the climate warming before our eyes and global efforts to rein in greenhouse emissions so-far insufficient, the IT sector plays a critical role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

As the use of IT continues to expand and the proliferation of cloud-based apps, almost everything we do now carries an IT-energy payload. It’s been estimated that the use of IT is responsible for 2% of global energy consumption, more than the global aviation industry. Every time we use devices we’re consuming energy (and often a lot of water, given the cooling systems used in most data centers). And every time we replace devices we’re contributing to the mountain of eWaste and the energy/water/waste embodied in acquiring the raw materials, manufacturing, shipping and selling.

For enterprises, most of the focus of environmental sustainability programs has been on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts through a range of energy, water and waste efficiency measures, such as switching to LED light fittings and adjusting air conditioning set points and improving recycling rates. Many of these initiatives have a positive return on investment.

The IT sector has an important role to play and the term green-IT has been bandied about a lot over the past few years. Equipment manufacturers and data center operators have been scrambling to improve the energy efficiency of their devices and facilities.

Unfortunately, growth in the numbers of smart phones, tablets and the back end servers and disk arrays that power the apps we now take for granted and depend on means that the sector continues to consume more power overall. The Internet of Things is propelling the continued expansion of device numbers and the trend shows no sign of abating. While most of our electricity is derived from fossil fuel generation, this will continue to accelerate global warming.

Meanwhile, computer monitors and other IT hardware contain highly potent greenhouse gases, which leach into the atmosphere if equipment is not used or disposed of responsibly. Less harmful alternatives are needed to replace these compounds.

An area of opportunity that has been neglected is the energy efficiency of the software itself. The famous Moore’s Law, that computing power will double every two years or so, has created a generation of lazy coders who work on the basis that the software they write will perform fine on the next generation of hardware, thus perpetuating the constant need to upgrade.

The original space shuttle was said to run on about 420,000 lines of code; recent versions of the Windows operating system have had 40 to 50 million. The software industry currently lacks efficiency standards, but imagine if bloatware was regulated? The development of software that makes efficient use of system resources could lead to a quantum improvement in overall IT energy efficiency.

Despite the recent ratification of the Paris Climate Accord, requiring countries to start reining in their emissions, scientists expect that the effects of climate change will become significantly more pronounced. One in 100 year extreme weather events will become much more likely, exacerbated in coastal areas by rising sea levels. Warming is already affecting growing seasons and locations for certain crops, while warmer waters and ocean acidification is threatening not just coral reef systems, but the entire marine ecosystem.

The IT sector will play a role in developing solutions for adaptation to these changing conditions, from more advanced seasonal weather forecasting models to land use planning, disaster planning and management, healthcare and many other fields. And of course, the use of IT to help improve energy and resource efficiency in other sectors such as smart power grids, transportation, building systems, water management and the like.

Opportunities abound for forward thinking organisations to exploit IT in innovative ways, such as Planalytics, which uses big data – matching transactions to weather conditions – to help organisations optimise sales.

David McEwen is a Director at Adaptive Capability, providing strategic advice to help businesses create and preserve value in the face of climate change. He is also the author of the new book, Navigating the Adaptive Economy. Visit www.adaptiveeconomybook.com for more information.