As more people wake up to climate change we are seeing a lot of effort put towards starting to reduce our collective green-house gas emissions. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a lack of quantitative data being applied to many of these efforts, and consequently the media, individuals and business are often focusing on the wrong issues rather than putting their efforts towards combating the main contributors to our carbon footprint.
In this article I shall try to point out some examples of environmental activities that do little more than salve our conscience, making us feel we are doing something good, thus diverting attention from the real problem areas, as well as some examples of what I feel are total green myths.
Switch it off / standby power
There has been widespread media coverage of a 'turn it off' campaign. Certainly, leaving electrical devices (be it a PC or a TV) on at all times is plain wasteful, but getting people to totally turn such devices off at the plug rather than just letting it go into standby mode is, frankly, a bit of a waste of time.
The problem is that the figures used by the media are at least ten years out of date. For example, a modern TV built within the last six years uses about 0.5 watts in standby mode. That means that a TV would have to be on standby for about a month to use the same energy as boiling a kettle (approx 0.3kWh, or about 0.13KG CO2)!
Also, we should not forget that all the energy we use ultimately ends up as heat, thus warming up the office or house a little. Therefore, if the building is being heated at that time of year the energy is not wasted anyway. In fact, when you compare the net effect of leaving devices on standby (rather than unplugging them) with the total carbon footprint of a typical home (most of which comes from burning gas), the total contribution is only 0.3 per cent. If you want to make a difference, turn the thermostat down and wear a jumper - don't worry about standby power.
The same applies to PCs; a modern desktop computer (with screen) will use around 2 watts when in hibernate mode. Getting people to shut down their machines totally at night inconveniences them and wastes their time the next morning when they have to boot up and get back to where they were. Promoting the use of hibernate rather than shutting down is much better since they are more likely to do it, or even better use the built-in power management facilities in the PC to automatically standby or hibernate after a period of inactivity.
Home working is not that green
Travel is one of the most environmentally damaging activities we do in day-to-day life. Even if driving a very fuel-efficient car, a 20 kilometres journey (i.e. a short round-trip commute) will produce around 2KG of carbon emissions. Obviously public transport is much better, but it is still better to encourage staff to work from home some of the time where practical.
The myth here is that someone working at home uses more energy than in the office because they are heating the house. Even in fairly cool climates, modern, well-insulated homes only lose a few degrees celsius during the day, and since most people tend to prefer working in a slightly cooler environment anyway the natural dip in daytime temperature is not an issue.
As well as that, most people would have their heating set to come on to warm up the house by the time they got home regardless, so the overall effect is negligible. Additionally, if you get a proportion of the workforce to work remotely you can have smaller offices, which means less lighting, heating etc. Encouraging home working is definitely good from a green perspective.
One alternative though is to encourage staff to use more efficient modes of transport. For example, my company purchased a fleet of electric bicycles for those staff who live within a few miles. Most of them would not have cycled normally, but electric bikes make cycling a lot easier for those of us who are not athletes, and as a result many of my staff now cycle to work when possible (myself included!).
IT is harmful to the environment
The IT industry has recently been the subject of some negative media attention regarding its contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions (around 2 per cent globally according to Gartner). In particular, there have been comparisons to the airline industry, which contributes a similar amount. Such comparisons are simply not appropriate; yes, the IT industry may generate 2-3 per cent of Europe's carbon emissions, but it contributes around 10 per cent of our total GDP!
Additionally, the IT sector as a whole has been making huge leaps forwards in recent years. A server bought in 2006, for example, used twice the power and did half the work of one bought today; a four fold improvement. That said, there is still a lot of work to do in improving the efficiency of data centres, but again we are taking the issues very seriously and are making huge leaps forwards in efficiency thanks to technologies such as virtualisation.
Finally, IT is a key enabler of energy efficiency in other sectors; everything from home working mentioned above, to efficient logistics. One could even argue that the 2 per cent contribution is more than repaid by the use of IT to reduce other industries' carbon footprints. If you are interested in what the IT industry is doing to combat climate change then read Intellect's report 'High Tech: Low Carbon - The role of technology in tackling climate change.'
As a slight aside it is also worth remembering that, in the case of a desktop PC at least, the embedded energy cost of manufacture and distribution (around 1,000 kWh, of half a tonne of CO2) is a large proportion of its lifetime energy cost. What this means is that it is worth trying to avoid replacing desktop PCs for as long as possible. Over a five year lifetime with typical office use, an average PC's total energy cost would be roughly 50 per cent in manufacture and 50 per cent in electricity used. The situation is different for servers; however, and in some cases it makes both environmental and economic sense to replace them after 2-3 years.
Becoming carbon neutral is difficult
Many businesses still do not seem to understand what being carbon neutral means. Simply, it means that the organisation has made a commitment to improving its energy efficiency, and that it shall sponsor a program to offset the inevitable emissions that it causes.
In 2006 Memset became the UK's first carbon neutral ISP, and it has given us an excellent return in terms of good PR. The key point though is that it actually was not very difficult to achieve. As an IT solutions provider running a couple of data centres our carbon footprint is quite large, despite our efforts to minimise it. The surprise is that it has not actually cost us a great deal to offset our effective emissions – roughly €1.5/server/month (less than 5 per cent of the servers' energy cost).
We offset by sponsoring a methane capture project in Germany (methane from landfill sites is 21 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas), and without contributions to such projects they would not be possible on the current scale. Offsetting is not a long-term solution, and is not a substitute for improved efficiency, but it is a quick win and is not difficult to do. If you want more information see the Carbon Neutral Company.
Recycling paper is great
Many businesses make a big show of how good they are at recycling paper. In reality though, while it is certainly a good thing to do, it is not one of the big issues we should be worrying about; most of our paper comes from renewable sources in Norway, not from deforestation of rain forests, and in fact the energy needed to recycle paper is only marginally less than the energy needed to extract it from the tree in the first place. Additionally, because of shortening of fibres in the paper you can only recycle it about three times, and if you use cross-cut shredders then you cannot recycle the paper at all.
As well as the above, one could argue that growing trees, turning them into paper and then burying them in landfill sites is actually a rather good method of carbon sequestration, provided that you capture the any methane produced from the landfill by anaerobic degradation of organic waste.
There is a danger that focusing on things like paper recycling becomes a distraction, encouraging people to believe they are doing real good when what they should be worrying about are things like using less energy in the office, travelling less and improving the utilisation of IT existing resources. That said, recycling paper (and trying to avoid using it at all) is certainly something that we should do, we just need to retain perspective and realise that it is much less significant than many other environmental initiatives.
We can't make a real difference, so why bother?
I am frequently faced with apathetic views on tackling climate change, the basic premise being that the developing world (especially China) is going to vastly outstrip Europe in terms of greenhouse gas emissions perhaps within a decade at its current rate of development.
Yes, in reality, even if the whole of Europe became super-green it would not be enough to reverse the global trend - we need to encourage the developing world to be more efficient as well. Therefore, what we should be doing in business is demonstrating to China and similar countries that it is possible to be green while still having a vibrant economy and not inconveniencing end-users.
Europe's collective role in combating climate change will not ultimately be down to our own reductions alone; it will be though us being exemplars to the rest of the world on how to be a successful low-carbon economy.
For more of Kate's views on energy-efficient IT see her blog at www.katescomment.com