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Green IT May Provide a Path to IT Profitability by 2020

The IT industry must adopt new energy-efficient technologies in the next ten years or face serious economic problems according to an 18-month study just published by the Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID) and Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. Otherwise, IT runs a "serious risk of being unable to contribute to growing the global economy if limits are placed on carbon emissions."

"In the face of growing global concerns over greenhouse carbon emission, the key for the industry is finding new technologies that deliver more performance for each kilogram of CO2 emitted," said Rice computer scientist Krishna Palem, ISAID's director, in a prepared statement. ISAID is a joint effort of Rice University in Houston and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "Fortunately, there are viable technological options on the table, and the information and communication industries have a strong track record of embracing new technologies."

The problem, according to the report, is that the U.S. information and communication technology (ICT) industry is predicted to increase its carbon emissions twice as fast as it contributes to gross domestic product over the next ten years.

"In the U.S. in 2009, the economic output of the ICT industry per kilogram of CO2 emitted was about $2.83, and in a business-as-usual scenario, that output will fall to about $1.06 per kilogram of CO2 by 2020," according to one of the authors, Chris Bronk, a fellow in technology, society, and public policy at the Baker Institute and lecturer of computer science at Rice.

"Based on those numbers, the industry is headed for a brick wall if limits are placed on CO2 emissions. In a carbon-constrained economy, green innovation will be absolutely essential for ICT profitability."

The report examined two trends in depth -- carbon emissions and gross domestic product (GDP) of the ITC industry. The authors developed a new metric they call the sustainability innovation quotient (SIQ), which "expresses the number of dollars returned in GDP by the ICT industry for each kilogram of carbon dioxide it emits," in response to a lack of an existing, reliable metric.

The research team looked at the energy consumed by today's devices (including PCs and laptops as well as smartphones and game consoles) and how increased demand will affect it. Such devices don't directly emit carbon dioxide, of course, but the electricity they use is produced mostly by burning coal and natural gas, which do emit the gas. The authors "factored in the effect of cleaner, more efficient electric production technologies that will be rolled out in the coming decade."

Although data centers were included in the study, the network equipment used by telecommunications and wireless providers was not factored in because, according to the authors, previous studies "had looked at their energy consumption in significant detail."

The growth estimates should serve as a wakeup call for IT data center managers. In a prepared release, Rice and ISAID noted that:

The authors calculated the global carbon emissions that will likely result if the ICT industry continues with business as usual. The calculations showed that global carbon emissions related to PCs and laptops, which accounted for 48.5 percent of all global ICT emissions in 2009, will nearly quadruple by 2020. Data center-related emissions will more than triple by 2020, and calculations showed that emissions related to both game consoles and mobile phones will more than triple by 2020. Mobile phones, which are constrained by battery life, and game consoles will together account for just 5.01 percent of total ICT emissions by 2020. [emphasis added]

The full report, which explains the author's methodology,can be downloaded at no cost; no registration is required.

-- James E. Powell
Editorial Director, ESJ

Posted on 10/13/2010 at 11:53 AM