Green IT Tries To Get Beyond Abstractions

Executives from Cisco, EMC, Dell and Symantec gathered at the United Nations today as a sort of coda to the climate summit held here last week, to talk about the role IT can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reversing catastrophic climate change.

Michael Hickins, Contributor

October 7, 2009

4 Min Read

Executives from Cisco, EMC, Dell and Symantec gathered at the United Nations today as a sort of coda to the climate summit held here last week, to talk about the role IT can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reversing catastrophic climate change.I went in thinking this was going to be another gasbagging exchange of self-congratulatory muckety-mucks, and to a certain extent it was.

Cisco in particular threw out a lot of numbers around how much money it had saved and greenhouse gases not emitted -- all in the name of setting a good example, of course. But that's exactly the trouble with these kind of gatherings: the corporations that show up are all about the green (both as an ethos and a business model), and unless they're selling "green" applications or hardware, a fat lot of good it does anyone else.

As the event unfolded, I was by turns amused and irritated to see the slide projector running for two hours without anyone turning it off, never more so than when it failed to work and the master of ceremonies suggested it "might have overheated or something."

Likewise, I was bemused when Sarbuland Kahn, who heads the United Nations Secretariat of the Global Alliance for ICT and Development, noted that the UN, although flawed in many ways, "lives by optimism. The essence of the UN is that it embodies the highest aspirations of human kind."

High aspirations are fine, but as Kahn said himself, the trick is to turn words into action. The objectives for reversing climate change set in 1992 for 2012 won't come close to being achieved, said Kahn, so the focus has to be on achieving objectives set this year for 2050.

But it turns out that this event was a lot more than just a gab-fest, mostly thanks to folks like Kathrin Winkler, EMC's chief sustainability officer, EMC CTO Jeff Nick, and Cisco's VP for emerging technologies, David Hsieh, who provided concrete examples of how IT can help reduce carbon emissions, not just by cleaning up its own act, but by facilitating the efforts of industries across the spectrum.

Those include:

using cloud computing to make more efficient use of computing and storage resources while spreading the cost of power and cooling data centers; connecting IT systems to building management systems to use electricity more effectively by, for instance, using employee key cards to power electricity up or down as they enter or leave their offices for the day; or making use of information lifecycle management to archive dormant data in storage units that consume less power.

Hsieh noted that while the IT industry itself is responsible for less than 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, IT products and services can impact 15 percent of emissions worldwide. One simple way, he suggested, is so-called smart systems to reduce traffic congestion in cities like Beijing. Edmund Richards, director of worldwide business development at Cisco, talked extensively about syncing IT infrastructures with building systems (like those that control heating, electricity and air conditioning) to manage resources more effectively.

There was some self-promotion, of course: Hsieh talked about Cisco telepresence (justification: cutting back on travel cuts back on usage of fossil fuels and saves money) and Nick talked about information management (justification: information lifecycle management allows customers to store archive data more intelligently, in storage units that consume less energy).

What was sorely lacking, however, is the kind of concrete information other people can use to make a difference in their own organizations. Like with employment, most of the cell phones, batteries, wasted electricity and squandered IT resources are with small and medium-sized businesses -- most of which can't afford highfalutin Cisco telepresence systems or EMC document management applications.

Why, I asked Nick, don't you talk about what most average companies can do to reduce their carbon footprint while saving themselves money in the bargain? He noted that cloud computing "is something that can disproportionately help SMBs" by allowing them to focus on their businesses rather than managing infrastructure - or, in his words, "offload the power plant and focus on the information."

Which makes sense. Sadly, it seems that most businesses still only adopt practices that are for the greater good if there's a direct financial benefit (or if failing to do so results in financial consequences). It's hard to believe this is the case when most of the people running businesses large and small also have kids (large and small).

But they somehow don't associate the cell phone batteries that seep chemicals from landfills into the water table with the lymphomas their own kids could develop as a result. They're not stupid and they're not exactly insensitive. What I suspect they are is desensitized and alienated from their own labor. Whatever they do for the corporation is divorced from their selves.

"It's not personal, it's business" has gone from being a misbegotten motto uttered by a fictional mobster to a suicide pact for a nation.

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