Some people are of the opinion Green IT is a fad. A short lived fancy. Something here today but gone tomorrow. To help clarify our understanding and opinion of green IT, let us step out of today and for the next two minutes we’ll do a little imagining, a little pretending and some future thinking.
Let’s pretend we are travelling forward in time, the years flying past us and suddenly we stop – we have arrived in the year 2050.
Look around you – computers are everywhere, involved in everything we do, maybe even embedded in us. There are a million different ways to use technology and a million more different technologies. But wait – what are those technologies made of – chemicals, heavy metals, synthetic materials? Where do they go when we are finished with them? How much power are they using? And are we using those technologies to help us solve environmental problems?
Now turn around in your mind and look at the environment surrounding you – the trees, the rivers, the animals, and the human race. Think about how many people exist on earth in 2050 and how we use the land and its natural resources. And consider this: do you think the environmental issues and concerns present today will be more or less significant in the year 2050?
Finally merge those two future visions together and ask yourself one final question: do you believe in the future we will need to both manage the environmental impact of technology and use technology to help manage human kind's impact on the planet?
What is green IT?
Green IT stands for Green Information Technology. Information Technology is essentially the design, implementation and management of computers that both individuals and businesses use.
In a nutshell, "Green" IT is composed of two things:
Minimising the negative impact of information technology use on the environment
Using information technology to help solve environmental issues
As you can see these are almost two areas at opposite poles. In our lives technology helps us to do everything from send a funny joke to our friends, to make sure the trains run on time, to allowing us to warn cities of tsunamis and earthquakes. We need it and it isn't going away any time soon. On the other hand a typical computer is made up of thousands of chemicals and if we put all the computers in the world together, they use massive amounts of electricity.
In this document we'll explain three examples of environmental issues related to technology.
What are the key areas of Green IT?
It's sitting on your desk looking at you right now. Smart. Sometimes silent. Sometimes frustrating. And full of chemical and toxins. What is it? It is your computer.
Yes, your computer contains over one kilogram of lead and a veritable cocktail of chemicals including antimony, arsenic, boron, phosphor, nitric acid, hydrofluoric acid, and hydrogen fluoride to name a few.
Your computer is also rich in mineral resources: Electronics account for ten percent of the world’s production of gold, of which only thirty percent is recovered from scrap. Electronics also contain copper. It's a worse situation for copper: ninety percent of copper in a computer can be recovered but only ten percent is.
This toxic and inefficient cocktail is where the term eWaste (electronic waste) comes from. And why should you care?
Mainly it has to do with the ongoing viability of the global penchant for new electronics.
For example, in Australia 43 million tonnes of electronic waste ended up in landfill in 2006-07 – an increase of 31% to the five years prior, and only 10% of the 16.8 million televisions and computers we bought in 2007-08 were recycled. The rest are sitting in landfill slowly leaching those chemicals into the soil, making their way down the soil layers into the ground water that feeds our rivers and streams.
Australia only has a population of 20 million people. Imagine the electronic waste issues in other countries!
The second reason is because on earth we have finite resources. When we use minerals like gold and silver and we don't recover them, those minerals are deducted from our overall supply. Eventually the tally will get so low, we won't have those resources available to us any longer if we don't recycle what we use.
If you would like to know more general information about the issues with production and manufacturing related to our modern life, the best video to watch is called "The Story of Stuff" (20 minutes): http://www.storyofstuff.com
Unlike eWaste, energy efficiency is a little harder to visualise. Essentially though energy efficiency is all about making computers and related technology both reduce the amount of electricity they use and utilise electricity more effectively.
Why is this important? Because the production of energy through coal-fired plants generates greenhouse gas emissions, most of which is CO2. And greenhouse gas emissions are believed to be a major cause of global warming.
A typical desktop computer uses 868 kW of electricity per year. And practically every company in the developed world has a computer of some sort. Many organisations have thousands of computers. For example a major bank in Australia has 20,000 computers.
If we calculate the carbon emissions from 20,000 computers using 868kW of electricity each year, it equals 12,467 metric tons of CO2. This much CO2 is equivalent to the:
Annual greenhouse gas emissions from 2,384 passenger vehicles; or
CO2 emissions from 28,994 barrels of oil consumed; or
CO2 emissions from the electricity use of 1,619 homes for one year; or
Carbon sequestered by 2,658 acres of pine or fir forests
And that's just one major company.
At home, the majority of people in developed countries are likely to have a computer, a games console, or a TV. And many times they will have all three or even multiple computers and TVs. If we take the population of Australia and assume ¾ of the population has at least 1 computer, that is 15,000,000 computers using 13,020,000,000 of electricity per year. This much electricity is equivalent to 935,049 metric tons of CO2. This much CO2 is equivalent to the:
Annual greenhouse gas emissions from 178,786 passenger vehicles; or
CO2 emissions from 2,174,533 barrels of oil consumed; or
CO2 emissions from the electricity use of 121,435 homes for one year; or
Carbon sequestered by 199,371 acres of pine or fir forests
And that is just the homes from one country in the world.
Some good facts to know…
By turning off your computer each night or when not in use (i.e. lunch times, weekends, when in meetings at night) for a year you save as much energy as it takes:
to run a clock radio for 1,392 weeks
to make 9,280 bags of microwave popcorn
to wash 464 loads of washing
to use your blow dryer for 5,568 hours
to vacuum for 464 hours
to produce 3,480 plastic bags
to run your microwave 24 hours a day for a week
to boil your kettle for 24 hours a day for 268 days
By turning off your computer tonight when you leave work you will save as much energy as it takes:
to run a clock radio for over 3 weeks
to make over 20 bags of microwave popcorn
to wash over 1 load of washing
to blow dry your hair over 12 times
to vacuum for over 1 hour
to light a 100 watt light bulb for over 10 hours
For both companies and individuals, there are some really easy actions they can take to reduce their energy use, including:
Turning off computers, games consoles and TVs when they are not in use
Setting your computer to "sleep" after 15 minutes of inactivity (this reduces the power it uses because "sleep" mode is a lower-energy use mode for the computer to operate in)
Turning devices off at the power point (because even in standby mode your appliances are using electricity)
Buy green energy (to help push electricity suppliers to convert from coal based production – which creates greenhouse gases and requires mining – to sustainable technologies like wind power)
Buy and use a laptop instead of a desktop computer. Laptops only use 190kW (average) of electricity per year.
Using Technology to Help Solve Environmental Issues
Apart from technology causing some environmental issues, it is also one of the best tools we have available to the human race to help us understand how we can fix environmental issues.
For example, technology can help us achieve things such as climate change modelling. Climate change modelling requires massive computer processing capability. Super-fast computers are sitting in labs across the world calculating scenarios for our future – how much will the sea rise? Which countries would be wiped out? How long will it take?
Another example of technology helping to solve environmental issues is carbon sequestration. But what is carbon sequestration? Well without getting into a science class discussion, it's really about storing excess carbon. At the moment you probably know that trees store carbon but we simply don't have enough trees to store all the carbon we produce. So we need to look for other places to store carbon. There are numerous proposals from scientists on how we do this, including storing it underground or in the sea. However before we go drilling places around the world and disturbing the flora and fauna, computers can help identify suitable storage areas – without the unnecessary drilling.