References to 'carbon footprint' are everywhere: a carbon footprint measures your impact on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases you - or your company - produce. Carolyn Kimber examines how ICT can reduce its carbon footprint.

From the business viewpoint, as well as hurting the environment, there's a chance carbon emissions could end up being taxed in future, so many companies are looking at what to do next and are realising that ICT has a major part to play in the move to a leaner and greener future. 

The average ICT department can help the rest of the business to become leaner - and greener - for example, through the reduction of power consumption in a variety of ways. This particularly applies to data centres and is why Sun, IBM, HP and others are involved in the Green Grid Consortium set up to address data centre power issues. They are also eating their own dog food - for example, HP has reduced its 85 data centres down to three mirrored centres worldwide and made 65 per cent savings on energy in the process. It's also not generally known that the main internet exchange in Docklands is on the limits of its expansion because of the power and cooling requirements of its vast array of servers.

Businesses have been trying to cut their carbon footprints of late, with the likes of Tesco looking at cutting the carbon impact of its ICT operations, promising to halve carbon emissions from its existing stores by 2020. BT claims it has reduced its footprint by 97,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by using phone and video conferencing to cut back on staff travel. These two companies are not alone - a recent poll of 335 companies found 95 per cent of them are making investments in ICT infrastructure to reduce their carbon footprint.

The ICT industry will need to change from power-hungry to green-hungry in a short period of time and will need to help businesses meet their carbon targets. There are a variety of ways that this can be done.

Missing out the morning commute is often touted as one way to help cut carbon emissions and save money on power bills too. That means greater reliance on technology to make sure workers at home stay connected. A report from the Energy Saving Trust recently warned home-workers to keep their energy consumption down when working from home - otherwise this eco-friendly method could become an eco-enemy.

Home-working is extremely popular with technical professionals, with nearly a third of them saying they work from home every day but so far working from home does not seem to be the top of most CEOs' agendas, with around half of all business managers saying their company doesn't allow remote or tele-working. Of course, it's not just about 'allowing' because a lot of jobs are not suitable for home-working, for example, waiting at table in a restaurant.

Videoconferencing is being touted as a technology to help organisations stay 'green' and lean - but there is more to getting it right than just installing the hardware. While videoconferencing technology is well established, it has recently received a boost because businesses are keen to limit their impact on the environment. Recent research from Frost & Sullivan found the market for high-end videoconferencing - so called telepresence - will reach over $400 million by 2013 as CIOs look to cut costs and carbon emissions alike. This trend is certain to accelerate as the price of oil continues to rise and travel costs go through the roof.

It's not just top executives who are aware of the issue. According to recent research, the average white-collar worker in the UK attends 91 face-to-face meetings per year and more than one-third of them think that face-to-face business meetings are both unnecessary and counter-productive.

We all know about the amazing variety of electronic gadgets flooding on to the market - almost every week brings its new crop. And isn't it tempting to try out that new phone or PDA or MP3 player - or all three combined? But every new gadget bought means an old gadget discarded. Therefore, businesses and consumers are all being asked to consider the environment before throwing old gadgets in the skip.

For example, two very similar announcements from Orange and O2 revealed that these companies will be encouraging consumers to renew their handsets only every two years, rather than using the 12-month replacement cycle most consumers now expect. Or do they?  Some consumers are hanging onto the gadget they know and love rather than risk the confusing menus and functions of something new every year. So maybe the tide is turning and we are seeing the start of a consumer rebellion against 'function creep' - cramming more and more functionality into a smaller and smaller space - when only 10 per cent of the functions will ever be used.

Some telecoms manufacturers, however, are going along with the flow and are impressing with their embrace of green technologies. Several kit manufacturers have harnessed wind power or biofuel to power their base stations. While these ideas are aimed at the developing world where traditional power lines are at a premium, there's no reason why such renewable technologies can't be employed in the UK or the US.

A significant announcement came out of Nokia just last month. From now on, the Finnish company will replace the 'battery full' notice on its handsets with a message that advises users that their battery is full and they should disconnect it from the power supply. Apparently, only 5 per cent of energy used by chargers goes into the phones themselves, the rest is wasted by chargers left plugged in unnecessarily.

But despite such concerns we all know how thrilling and alluring the notion of mobility can be - the freedom to roam and not be tied down to a line cord. But with the move to an era where glass and wireless are replacing existing copper cables for all our telecoms circuits, and where the advantages of an all-IP network and system are all but irresistible, we have to consider what we do with all the kit that is replaced - most of it still in good condition and nowhere near the end of its working life. We could dump it, we might try to sell it (on a very depressed market) or we might just pay someone to take it away and turn a blind eye to what happens to it thereafter. But isn't it even more important that we take whatever opportunity is available to limit the worst impact on our environment?

Here are some interesting quotes from a White Paper produced by OnRelay:

  • 'Total annual global electronic waste going into landfill each year is equivalent to the weight of a WWII battleship.'
  • 'Electrical and electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste area in the UK. Around 1.8 million tonnes are generated every year.'
  • 'That 1.8 million tonnes equates to 3.5 times the weight of nappy waste.'

So what can we do about it? What difference can you and I make to the green agenda?

It's all very well making a song and dance about green IT, but if you and I - both in our businesses and as consumers - don't make some changes, then little will be done to turn the situation around. Even as an individual there are several things to do:

  • Make sure you switch off gadgets rather than leave them on standby.
  • Print fewer documents if you don't need them.
  • Recycle and reuse, where available.

Individuals can also put pressure on their bosses and ICT departments to do more. Unfortunately, not all CIOs seem to be eco-aware, and research shows that reliability, price and after-sales support are cited as the biggest factors when making ICT purchases. According to IBM research, only 12 per cent of CIOs believe the energy efficiency of ICT equipment to be a critical purchasing driver.

So there is still clearly a way to go, and it's not just about hardware either, software has a part to play. It has been said that Windows Vista is growing in popularity because of its low power requirements. It does of course need to be complimented by less power-hungry hardware but it's a step in the right direction - as is all the power management software now emerging for laptops.

There are many ways in our ICT world in which we can all save money, save hassle, and help save the planet in the process. Now is the time for serious consideration to be given to this subject because, as an appropriate Chinese proverb says, 'One generation plants a tree, the next generation gets the shade.'

Carolyn Kimber is FCMA FBCS is chairman of the Commuications Management Association (CMA).