The role of communications in greening the planet

By Sarah Sorensen
June 15, 2009

As companies and individuals, we are all increasingly aware of our impacts on the environment - more specifically the ways in which our actions consume energy that result in carbon emissions or create waste that goes into landfill. And if we somehow forget, there are reminders everywhere we go. From the reusable bags sold in grocery stores, to energy efficiency labels on our appliances, to news stories on the latest energy-saving or recycling tips. Even oil companies are asking us to use less, advocating "human energy" instead.

And most of us, when given the option of doing something bad for the environment versus something good, will go for the good, more sustainable option. No hesitation!

But often it's not that easy - there are no signs that label things as a "bad option" or "good option" to help guide our decisions. So, we struggle through trying to figure out what we should be doing and which option is "better." I can't tell you how long I have stood in the aisles of my grocery store trying to figure out which detergent or cleaning product to buy - and am often still confused after making my choice whether I did the right thing (just Google "bleach" and you get a sense of the debates that can go on).

So when it comes to the role of the information and communications technologies can play in "greening" the planet, it is easy to see how the groans can escape and eyes glaze over. The potential complexity of items and issues that need to be waded through can seem overwhelming. But, I argue it's worth it, because the pay offs can be huge.

The "Smart 2020" report, commissioned by the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI), with analysis by McKinsey & Company, estimates that information and communications technology (ICT), of which the network is a key component, has the potential to reduce global carbon emissions by 15 percent by 2020. That should be enough to make someone want to sit up and take notice. If you haven't already seen it, check it out.

How would these technologies make this impact? McKinsey also released a detailed study, "Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy," that identifies over 200 opportunities for ICT technologies to reduce emissions, spanning multiple industries, including transport, energy and buildings, over many geographical regions. It's great reading if you are at all interested in how technology can help as we tackle some the world's toughest environmental problems.

Just think of the emissions that are saved when you work from home versus getting into your car and driving into the office. Or the efficiencies that can be gained with just-in-time merchandising systems that cut down on guessing at consumer buying patterns or the practice of over-stocking. Or the waste that can be minimized with better tracking and management over the distribution of goods (50 percent of food is wasted due to inefficiencies in the supply chain).

But it is also true that "green" IT is not all roses. The ICT industry does contribute to overall emissions during their lifecycle. And as more information and resources are digitized and the reliance on our connections to these online assets increases, those emissions will increase too. So there is work that needs to be done within the industry to ensure maximum benefit is derived from communications technologies, while minimizing their impact. In a nutshell, it requires the networking equipment vendors to look at their devices on a component, box design and broader solutions level to create greater efficiencies. The trick is to make sure the energy consumption of the communications infrastructure doesn't grow at the same rate as the exploding traffic growth its going to need to support. (Internet traffic is doubling approximately every two years)

My goal is to try to wade through all the noise in subsequent blogs and make sense of the interdependencies to determine ways in which we can all better use the network to create a more sustainable planet.

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