Global warming responsibilities lost on the Canadian ICT sector

Energy consumption is draining the bottom line, while heating up the eco-system, according to a new IDC study on the ICT industry’s impact on global warming.

The report, authored by Lawrence Surtees, recommends that all businesses should be putting in place performance metrics that allow for the tracking of goals towards the reduction of energy consumption and distributing tools amongst employees that help them measure their carbon footprint.

The study, released April 30th, found there is a disconnect between the concern business people have for the environment and the actions their companies are taking to help, Surtees said.

“The majority of businesses will agree that climate change is real and agree that there’s a man-made part of the problem,” he says. “But they don’t see the immediate connection on the harm being done to the environment today and their business actions.”

More than two-thirds of Canadian medium and large-sized firms at least agree that global climate change is real and measurably impacts our planet. But two-thirds of those same respondents think climate change is not something that will impact their business until three years or more and one-third think they have 10 years.

The time to act is now, Surtees recommends in the report. Canada has led the world in per-person energy usage levels for nearly four decades at 11,300 kWh per person annually. That’s a nose ahead of the United States and well ahead of the rest of the world. Businesses need to understand that sort of energy usage is contributing to global warming.

“You can’t change what you don’t know,” Surtees says. “If you could see and feel power flowing like you can water out of a pipe, then you’d know when you’d had enough. But it’s invisible.”

Better methods of measuring emissions have cropped up with the development of carbon-trading markets, according to Ian Rowlands, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Waterloo. There’s also a need to understand fluctuating electricity prices at different times.

“We’re seeing the need for a more sophisticated understanding of the electricity market that it’s not just a linear relationship between electricity consumption and cost,” he says.

Rowlands is heading a provincially-funded project at the university to develop an energy hub management system. The system would allow a power consumer to better track and tweak their power use habits with a Web-based application.

Globally, the ICT sector produces one-tenth of all carbon dioxide emissions – equal to the aviation industry. On a smaller scale analogy, one computer server produces as much greenhouse gases in a year as a sports utility vehicle.

Perhaps recognizing the negative optics such numbers present, 94 per cent of Canadian firms saw they should do more to help reduce their impact on the environment, according to the report. Investments in sustainable IT are being made, with firms citing corporate values (55 per cent) and financial savings (23 per cent) as the top two reasons for doing so.

“In the bowels of the IT shop, cutting back on power consumption isn’t just to be responsible, but because they’re sucking too much power and their may not be enough,” Surtees says. IT managers were more concerned with financial savings, whereas executives with corporate values – but the two factors may soon go hand in hand.

“It’s kind of hard to divorce corporate responsibility from the financial aspect,” the analyst adds. “The ability to attract investors is going to be linked to how that company is viewed as a responsible global citizen.”

Such thinking is likely behind the report’s recommendations that executive bonuses be directly linked to corporate environmental emission reduction targets – the more emission cuts, the more bonus bucks. Power consumption reduction should also be central to every aspect of business function, not just in the data centre.

“It is virtually inevitable they will be asked about this in the not so distant future,” Rowlands says. “They’ll be asked by the market analyst who covers their sector, they’ll be asked by the citizens of the community in which they have their operations.”

The IT department isn’t just part of the problem, but can be part of the solution. Surtees outlines in his report several suggestions on using technologies to help cut down on power consumption. For example, Wake-on-LAN technology could automatically put PCs on sleep mode after hours and wake them only when they needed to be updated.

Employees can also track their carbon footprint with a Web tool from Toronto-based Zerofootprint Inc. The site combines an emissions calculator with social networking features to motivate people to group together and make major changes for the good, explains executive director Deborah Kaplan.

“If we get all employees turning off their computers when they go home at night, that is a lot of savings,” she gives as an example. A large corporation with thousands of employees can make a big difference if everyone works together to do simple things.

Also, new power systems outfitted with IP jacks can track power consumption in real-time, and a smart lighting system that uses sensors can dim office lighting when employees leave the office.

Many companies are putting energy-saving practices into play. Almost half of firms reported using PC energy savings procedures, and consolidating servers through virtualization and other methods. Four in 10 are using energy efficient power and cooling systems, and one in four are using smart, energy-efficient office systems.

“There’s still so much that can be done. Some of these things are very simple and don’t take a rocket scientist to set up,” IDC’s Surtees says. “Only 20 per cent of data centres know that server racks should be set up with alternating hot and cool aisles. If you haven’t done it this way, then just bring in a crew of high school kids and move the racks.”

Growing awareness of the world’s environmental peril has grown over the last year and a half, Surtees says. Thanks to the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change report firmly pointing the finger at human actions as a major cause of global warming, and the popular effect of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth,” Canadians have the environment at the top of their minds.

But business action on that knowledge is trickling in slowly.

“We’re in the early days of growing awareness,” he says. “There’s many companies that haven’t yet got on the bandwagon.”

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