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Green IT – I’m a Believer
“How a humble Green IT project opened my eyes to the need for everyone to get on the Sustainability bandwagon”
Maybe I had been in the business too long, but when I first became interested in “Green IT”, I took it to be another way to sell. I didn’t believe that most people really cared about the environment when they were at work, only when they were talking about it at dinner parties, and certainly wouldn’t do anything at work just because it was “good for the planet”.
I had taken a stance on Sustainability. It turns out, most of us have: Ewan Jones, who advised on a recent Green IT project I was running and an expert in the field of Sustainability marketing, identifies several stances which people will take when confronted with the subject of Sustainability as shown in the diagram below:
People are divided into two groups at the highest level: those who are engaged with the subject of Sustainability (i.e. those who have at least taken the trouble to have a view on it) and those who are not (the “Agnostics”).
Within the first group, Jones has identified a sub-group who believe in actively participating in tackling the problems of finite resources and global warming, and another sub-group who have decided there is no problem, that it has been exaggerated or that there is no point doing anything about it because we’re all doomed anyway (the “Rejectionists”).
The “participating” sub-group are divided again into those who are internally motivated and those externally motivated. The internally motivated participators have thought about the issues and take action according to there own, personal analysis, whereas those externally motivated are participating either because it’s trendy (the “Happy Clappys” or because everyone else is (the “Sheep”)!
The internally motivated participating sub-group are the most interesting and are divided yet again into those who passionately believe that our actions can save the planet and that we have no choice but to act (the “Campaigners”) and those that believe that, whilst on the balance of probabilities, we should be looking at better ways to use our resources and lower our emissions, are by no means convinced yet that we can save ourselves from environmental catastrophe by doing so (the “Pragmatists”).
This is the story of how I have started to become a Campaigner from my comfortable Pragmatist’s sofa.
A scientist by training and a cynic by nature it always seemed to me that there were always other motivations behind people “embracing the green agenda”, for example vanity (“look at me! I buy fair-trade coffee to ‘do my bit’ for the poor farmers of Brazil! – in fact I’m going to take a great big jumbo jet to Rio on my holidays to take a closer look – actually it’s the same great big jumbo jet which transports my guilt-assuaging coffee to me”) or marketing (“look at our virtualised servers! Sure they’re a little more expensive than standard servers, but YOU can help save Mother Earth!”).
Indeed I have yet to see a “green project” implemented in the business world which has not also either saved the business money or given them a bigger market-share – in other words, they will only be green if it is good business to be green. They are acting just like the great 19th century industrial philanthropists like Titus Salt who realised – and freely stated – that treating their workforce well, simply made good business sense. The currently beleaguered CEO of “American Apparel” recently admitted that the motivation to only manufacture in the US was based on generating more profit for him rather than more local jobs for the American people. You can’t blame the business man any more than you can blame the lion for eating cute zebras – it is what he was put on this over-heating planet to do.
However, my thinking also led me to realise that waste is an empirically bad thing anyway, so even if half of England isn’t going to be lost to the North Sea, embracing Sustainability would be a good thing to do from an economic, social and moral point of view. In that sense, you can leave aside the macro environmental effects of selfish, lazy humanity when you acknowledge that not reusing a plastic bag is the act of an inherently selfish, lazy human.
But, the big hurdle for me to get over to become anything like an Evangelist, is that I saw no link between recommending to clients that they sort out the air conditioning in their Comms Rooms or getting people to print less or have proper hot / cold aisles in their datacentres and the melting ice caps. For all I knew, we could sit in total darkness with chalk boards until doomsday and only save one polar bear whilst palm trees sprung up on the banks of the Clyde.
However, it turns out that there might well be logic behind the Government targets and a link through to the best scientific thinking of today. The Green Egg Heads reckon that if every human being maintained a carbon footprint of 2tCO2 annually, then the mean global temperature would go up by 2°C. Is that a lot? More than it sounds apparently, but not a disaster: they think we’d get away with it. However, the average person in the UK has a footprint of around 10tCO2 including trips overseas to see the poor people we are “helping”, and our American cousins guzzle twice that!
Can we just get everyone in the world reduce their footprint by the same proportionate amount? Tricky: consider you are working away in an emerging economy and the West is telling you that they’ve enjoyed the good times and now expect you to tighten your Sustainability belt as much as them in relative terms, so that the disparity in consumption is maintained: you might give him a very short answer.
So, we all have to try to get down to the “magic” 2tCO2 then. From 10 to 2 sounds like a reduction of 80% to me, which, would you believe, is also the target the Government has set to reduce its carbon emissions down to by 2050. So it seems there is logic to the targets Government set themselves after all and, crucially, a link to the current thinking in the science community.
The following illustrates how much of the burden the West must shoulder:
And in my own small way, I have helped extend this chain of targets down to the individual green initiative. In a recent project, my team developed a model which baslined the carbon footprint of a very large Government IT department and a method for analysing exactly what effect individual projects would have on that baseline.
Using the tools we created, we were able to show how the department was going to be able to hit its targets for emissions and, in a very practical sense, contribute to the current best thinking on what will help us avert real, significant environmental problems in the future.
This has been the final piece which has seen me turn into an evangelist! Logically cascaded targets, scientific assessment and maths! Is there anything they can’t do?
Besides finding a way to link our ideas for green to the big picture, this is what we have concluded to be our “Top Ten Tips to Tackle Sustainable IT”:
- Create a capability rather than a report: in short, do something rather than just observe, comment and recommend: there are many simple initiatives which can deliver real, rapid benefit. This should not be at the expense of analysing where the maximum value can be delivered and planning for how progress will be measured.
- All that glitters is not green: some ideas aren’t as green as they look: analysis and facts do not lie: eye-catching is often not as good as old-fashioned house-keeping – in terms of CO2 reduction, boring but big is always better than good PR but small.
- Ideas of the same type can yield very different green outcomes: the ratio of CO2 reduction between our best printing idea and our worst was about 100:1! Again, the data does not lie!
- Start ugly and make beautiful: – create a model which is “broadly right rather than precisely wrong” – in other words, it is better to be able to compare initiatives in rough terms, that attempt to create the perfect model which will cover any set of circumstances but be of no use for months. A conscious effort has to be made to refine the model however and to remove as many assumptions as possible as an ongoing activity.
- CO2 emissions should be accounted for in the same way as money: in the same way a decision on whether to scrap inefficient kit will have to take into account the capital investment already made, the analogy can be made with the amount of embodied carbon too. Accounting for it as “capital carbon” rather than the “revenue carbon” from electricity use which can be saved by replacement, is a way to do this and aid the investment decision making process. Carbon P&L and Carbon Balance Sheets are also financial concepts which prove very useful when “accounting for green”. When green levies are introduced, this will become even more crucial for helping to place the best bets when it comes to investment decisions with a green element.
- Making it someone else’s problem is not good enough, unless that is acknowledged and the recipient of the problem is better equipped to deal with it – Government CO2 emission targets only refer to Scope 2, that is electricity paid for by the Department. Therefore outsourcing can theoretically reduce emissions to zero and become the problem of the outsourcer: this does not reflect reality as, of course, the CO2 is still being emitted, just by someone else, even if their operations are greener. This needs to be acknowledged and accounted for at the higher level.
- Numbers do not lie: measurement and accounting are not easy but, as above, it is better to attempt to apply numbers to analyse the size of the problem and be inaccurate, than to shy away from accounting for green altogether. Soon it will not be acceptable to avoid the issue in any event.
- Targets do not lie: it doesn’t make sense to impose the same targets on everybody, but it’s a decent start – it must be acknowledged that some groups have more scope for improvement than others and that one target is a very blunt instrument. However it is better than nothing: for example, in the Government Department we studied, estate heating and IT were subject to a combined target and therefore very broad assumptions had to be made when calculating how IT was contributing. Even with these significant assumptions, we could be confident that we were showing accurate trends and reasonably accurate absolutes.
- Green is like Quality – it should run through everything you do and not be a “bolt on” and just an administrative hoop to jump through.
- Don’t be “one hand clapping” – green initiatives make little sense in isolation: unless the entire organisation understands and is engaged in the Sustainability agenda, little will change. IT initiatives need to be linked to those in Corporate Responsibility and Estates to make an effective response to the challenge.