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How the IT Sector Can Become a Legitimate Climate Solutions Provider

The IT industry has long enjoyed a reputation as a “clean” industry, representing significant GDP growth relative to its greenhouse gas footprint (for example, see “Earth Calling: The Environmental Impacts of the Mobile Telecommunications Industry” report). And it has demonstrated phenomenal leaps in efficiency that would make Moore proud. Yet with the current policy discourse centered on climate change, the industry’s success may become a liability.

The IT industry has long enjoyed a reputation as a “clean” industry, representing significant GDP growth relative to its greenhouse gas footprint (for example, see “Earth Calling: The Environmental Impacts of the Mobile Telecommunications Industry” report). And it has demonstrated phenomenal leaps in efficiency that would make Moore proud. Yet with the current policy discourse centered on climate change, the industry’s success may become a liability. Due to the tremendous growth in emerging markets and the increased demand for bandwidth to run increasingly sophisticated applications, the total greenhouse gas footprint of the IT industry, according to Gartner research, is currently on par with aviation at 2%. That small number masks one of the fastest emissions growth rates, though, according to The Climate Group and McKinsey’s analysis, at 6% per year. In fact, the industry has become the biggest buyer of electricity in some industrialized nations (take BT in the U.K., for example).

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But if you consider a hypothetical “low carbon economy” for a moment, it is one that is significantly information-rich. By definition, we cannot optimize our use of resources, and keep them within the carrying capacity of local ecosystems, without a step-change in the prevalence, accuracy, and sophistication of data analytics.

Enter IT. The real value-add of IT is an enabler of evidence-based management. Without IT, we would not have evidence of climate change, because the sheer complexity of data collection and climatic modeling outstrips the computing power of the human brain. Without IT, we would not have traffic engineering, just-in-time delivery or day trading. In other words, IT can reveal the numbers behind seemingly complex and opaque systems.

Therefore, applied appropriately, IT systems can enable truly transformative change by ensuring that:

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  1. Industrial motors are equilibrated to fluctuations in demand and temperature.
  2. Manufacturing processes minimize per unit energy by minimizing system failures.
  3. Distributors consolidate warehousing and delivery space rather than “shipping air”.
  4. Fleet and passenger vehicles interact wirelessly with route optimizing systems, toll operators, parking managers, and land use planners.
  5. Commercial and residential buildings monitor their energy usage and communicate in real-time with power generation plants to avoid demand spikes.
  6. Appliances calibrate their energy consumption to real-time user needs.
  7. Distributed renewable technologies can seamlessly sell back to the grid.

It is this power to peel back, layer by layer, the energy information behind our economy–and thereby enable optimal management of that energy–that will make IT a legitimate climate solutions provider.


Emma Watson

Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is the Senior Program Lead of Autodesk’s Sustainability Initiative. In this role, she leads the design software company’s efforts to model sustainability best practices to its 9 million architect, engineer, manufacturing, and construction customers. In addition to driving the company’s climate strategy, her team seeks to spot, shape and adopt new best practices through alliances with government, NGOs, academia, and corporate partners.

Emma is a regularly featured columnist for Harvard Business Online, Environmental Leader, and ClimateBiz and her work has been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, Global Finance, among others.

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