More carbon, less productivity?United Kingdom
It's often touted as an energy efficiency enabling technology capable of reducing CO2 emissions across a broad spectrum of sectors, but just how long can ICT maintain its green credentials in the face of big hikes in the cost of electricity?
Not long, according to a new report, which suggests that the productivity of ICT will halve in the coming decade as its emissions double.
At least, that could be the case, if businesses fail to adopt new energy efficient ICT technologies, according to Chris Bronk, co-author of the study at the Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics at Rice University in Houston, Texas. "There's this idea that ICT is a driver for productivity and advancing the economy," says Bronk. But he believes simply deploying more and more ICT will not necessarily reap enormous savings.
In the 18-month study, carried out with Krishna Pralem, a professor of computing at Rice University and director of the Institute for Sustainable Nanoelectronics at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, Bronk analysed both the carbon emissions of ICT and its contribution towards the annual gross domestic product (GDP) in the US. They found that if the ICT industry continues to do business as it has in the past, its economic output will fall from about $2.83 per kilogram of CO2 emitted in 2009 to just $1.09 by 2020.
This drop in productivity comes largely from the escalating electricity costs of running the equipment, which means businesses will have to start thinking long and hard about how and where they deploy ICT, says Bronk. "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," he says.
Although such carbon curbing measures are still being debated in the US, the recent introduction of the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme (formerly known as the Carbon Reduction Commitment) could soon make it a stark reality for businesses in the UK. "Will we stop doing computing? No," says Bronk. But without change, the electricity used in data centres - one of the largest CO2 contributors of ICT - could result in electricity consumptionl doubling over the next five years, he says. The same applies to PCs, mobile phones, and gaming consoles: growth is going to come at an increasing cost. "We can't support that kind of growth in consumption," he says.
The industry has made many inroads towards greener technologies, such as the Green Grid initiative, says Tony Day, global director of data centre projects for APC. "Besides the environmental impact of data centres, the energy costs of ensuring reliable IT services has made efficiency an imperative, in turn requiring that productivity is driven up," he says. There are technologies now available to help, from next generation greener servers to better management tools and more efficient cooling systems, although some ICT vendors have been slow to implement such measures, says Day.
The other issue is ICT's potential to deliver huge efficiency savings in other sectors, such as transport, buildings and energy infrastructure, as detailed in the Climate Group's Smart 2020 report. These contributions tend to be overlooked when the productivity and efficiency of ICT is called into question, says Day.
Bronk says these factors were taken into account in his study. "ICT does provide some answers," he comments. "But it doesn't get a blank cheque for its energy consumption."
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