Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Green IT: Burden or Opportunity? 

<p>A holistic and objective assessment reveals that it is better to adopt green IT in the interest of several opportunities and benefits it offers to businesses, the society and our planet even if it is a burden. Smart companies are now implementing their green strategies to innovate, create value and build a competitive advantage. </p>

Part one of a two-part series...the second part is available here.

A holistic and objective assessment reveals that it is better to adopt green IT in the interest of several opportunities and benefits it offers to businesses, the society and our planet even if it is a burden. Smart companies are now implementing their green strategies to innovate, create value and build a competitive advantage.

As the world's climate heats up causing disastrous consequences, and as environmental problems become global, a new spotlight appears on IT. Over the years, IT has fundamentally altered our work and life and improved our productivity, economy and social well-being. It now needs to play a new role – helping to create a greener, more sustainable environment while offering economic benefits and social value. IT professionals and the IT industry are required not only to make IT systems and their work practices greener but also to harness IT's power to address the growing environmental problems we face for the benefit of current and future generations. Greening IT is becoming an economic, business and environmental imperative; as some advocate, it is our social responsibility as well.

While greening IT is generally perceived as something good to do, some IT professionals, executives and enterprise IT departments consider it as additional burden entrusted upon them and hence do not have interest in developing and implementing green IT strategies and initiatives. This raises a valid question among various stakeholders, including IT professionals: Is green IT a burden or an opportunity? A rational, holistic examination of this dilemma, however, reveals that green IT is an opportunity to embrace to our benefit, even if it's considered a burden.

A key reason for this dilemma is perhaps disparity in the level of green IT understanding across companies, IT professionals, and IT users in terms what is green IT (or green computing) and what is its potential. Further, many people don't understand and appreciate the general philosophy behind green initiatives and their promise. So, let's address these first before we devolve on green IT opportunities and benefits versus burden.

Facets Of Green IT

Green IT refers to computer and information systems and IT applications and practices that help to improve our environment and enhance the environmental sustainability. Green IT is an enabler. Beyond creating energy-efficient IT systems, green IT is also about applying IT to create energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable business processes and practices, as well as manufacturing, transportation and buildings.

Green IT can be viewed from three complementary perspectives and embodies three approaches (see Figure 1):

1. Greening of IT. It focuses on efficient and effective design, manufacture, operation, use, and disposal of computer and communication systems (including hardware, software, storage, and networks) aiming for minimal or zero impact on the environment. This benefits the environment by improving energy efficiency, lowering GHG emissions, using less harmful materials, reducing resource consumption and encouraging reuse and recycling. Greening of IT is also known as Green IT 1.0.

2. Greening by IT. This, also known as Green IT 2.0, focuses on using IT and information systems to support, assist, and leverage applications and activities in several other domains and industry sectors to reduce energy and resource consumption and carbon footprint. In addition to being green itself, IT can help create a more sustainable environment by:

  • Enabling dematerialization (replacing physical goods by digital goods, virtual online meetings).
  • Coordinating, reengineering and optimizing the supply chain, manufacturing activities and organizational workflows to minimize their environmental impact.
  • Making business operations, buildings and other systems energy efficient.
  • Helping decision making by analysing, modelling and simulating environmental impacts.
  • Providing platforms for eco-management and emissions trading.
  • Auditing and reporting energy consumption and savings.
  • Offering environmental knowledge management systems and decision support systems.

While IT is part of the problem to environmental pollution in terms its energy consumption, hazardous waste it generates during manufacture, e-waste that can contaminate the earth and atmosphere, it can be saviour too. In other words, IT is both a solution and a problem for environmental sustainability. While ICT emissions are growing faster than average global emissions growth, ICT has the potential to abate 16.5 percent of the world's total emissions by 2020 (http://gesi.org/SMARTer2020).

3. Harnessing IT to promote green awareness and agenda. We should leverage IT to help create green awareness among stakeholders including students and the public and promote green initiatives. Examples include: use of social media and interactive visualization for creating awareness about the impact of environmental degradation, global warming and climate change; simulation systems for education and training; and green electronic games.

The scope and promise of green IT is broad, and we can exploit the power of IT in innovative ways to address mounting environmental issues and make our IT systems – and their use – greener.

Green IT: An Opportunity to Embrace

As some people consider the green philosophy in general and green demands on enterprise IT in particular do not excessively or unduly burden IT systems, corporate IT departments or functional units. In fact, green initiatives let us revisit and examine our IT systems and their operations in terms of energy efficiency and resource utilization, and thereby enable us to go lean on IT, minimize IT's energy consumption and save on energy bills. Until recently, IT functions and activities primarily focussed on meeting their functional and performance requirements. Very little attention was paid to aspects such as energy consumption, effective utilization of IT resources, IT's operational costs or IT's negative impact on environments during its manufacturing, use, reuse and disposal. For safeguarding our environment, we now need to address these neglected or overlooked aspects as well.

Several case studies on greening efforts reveal that businesses realize cost savings and improve their public image besides reducing their environmental (carbon) footprint. For instance, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) research report the SMARTer2020, released in December 2012, identifies and evaluates ICT-enabled green solutions across six major sectors of the economy: power, transportation, manufacturing, consumer and service, agriculture, and buildings. The report emphasizes that ICT is a critical tool in facilitating the transition to a low-carbon economy and provides specific guidance to policy makers on actions they can take to realize the potential of green IT.

To illustrate the opportunities that ICT presents to reduce carbon emissions, let's consider the transportation area. Through the use of smart automation and driving, real-time traffic alerts, and the ICT-enabled green logistics systems, IT helps to reduce total mileage and the amount of fuel required to transport people and goods. Making available on mobile devices a mash up of online maps with real-time traffic data enable users to optimize routing decisions, reduce fuel consumption, and lower emissions. Furthermore, the adoption of telecommuting and video conferencing eliminates transportation needs. All of these contribute to reductions in energy use and, accordingly, reductions in GHG emissions while offering convenience and other benefits.

A holistic and objective assessment would reveal that even if one feels burdened with 'go green' initiatives and demands, it is better to adopt them in the interest of several opportunities and benefits it offers to the businesses, the society and our planet.

Smart companies are adopting an environmental strategy to innovate, create value and build a competitive advantage. Greening of – and by – IT will soon be necessities – not options. Green initiatives are becoming a key agenda for many enterprises, and enterprises need to develop and implement the green IT strategy that is aligned with their business strategy and goals.

To help create a more sustainable environment, IT professionals must recognise green IT's philosophy and potential and embrace it innovatively. Executives and policy makers need to develop, implement and support sound green IT strategies and policies. Even simple steps that one individual or organization takes can make a huge difference when leveraged across the vast number of individuals and organizations across the world.

Part two is available here.

Helpful Resources for Further Information

For a comprehensive overview on Green IT, refer to book chapter, "Green IT: An Overview," in the new book Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices, San Murugesan and GR Gangadharan (Editors), Wiley-India and IEEE Computer Society, 2012 – free download.

For information on how IT could be harnessed in other key sectors to green their operations, refer to the report, SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future, Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), 2013.

© Author: San Murugesan

About the Author

San Murugesan is director of BRITE Professional Services, and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Computing and Mathematics at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His expertise and interests include cloud computing, green computing, Web 2.0 and 3.0, and IT in emerging markets. He offers training programs on cloud computing and green IT, and delivers keynotes and seminars. His recent book, Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices, co-edited with GR Gangadharan, is well recognized in professional and academic circles and is being adopted as textbook for courses on green IT, green computing and green business. He is Associate Editor in Chief of the IEEE’s IT Professional magazine and Editor of Computer. He edits the new "Cloud Cover" column in Computer and "IT in Emerging Markets" column in IEEE IT Professional (short articles for both these columns are welcome). He is a fellow of the Australian Computer Society, Senior Member of IEEE and a distinguished visitor of the IEEE Computer Society. Dr. Murugesan held various senior positions in academia and industry in Australia, USA and India. Contact him at san1[at]internode[dot]net or connect with him on Twitter @santweets, or LinkedIn.

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