Powering down – managing ICT's carbon footprint

Recent studies have estimated that IT now accounts for as much as 10 percent of the earth’s electricity consumption – and as technology evolves, it is likely to continue using more and more energy and power. Consumption varies - charging up a smartphone or tablet requires very little electricity, but watching an hour of mobile video a week consumes more electricity than two new refrigerators use in a year. That's due to the energy used to power then cool the video servers in the data center and also the power consumed by network equipment.

However, thanks to the general energy efficiency advances in ICT – it has doubled every year-and-a-half for the past sixty years or so – today’s low-power phones and tablets utilize less than ever, at 2kWh and 12kWh per year respectively. But then there are of course billions of them in use every day.

The data center is the next most energy-hungry area of ICT, estimated to consume between 1 and 2 percent of the world’s electricity, and one recent survey also found that energy cost and availability is the number one worry for data center operators. ICT overall is now responsible for more than 830 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), putting it on a par with the aviation industry for global CO2 emissions.

So the ICT carbon footprint is not insignificant and a challenge certainly exists. Bell Labs has conducted research into energy trends in today’s always-on world, and predicts that there will be over 3.9 billion internet users by 2017, powering an increase of 400 percent in data traffic and 720 percent for video. So energy efficiency in the ICT space has never been more important.

How can we make ICT greener?

Solutions do exist and as technology companies become more aware of the issue’s importance, they are taking appropriate action. It has been shown that big energy savings can be had by shifting business applications into the cloud for example. The relocation of numerous small and inefficient server rooms and locally hosted services into the cloud could lower energy costs by up to 87 percent. The use of shared, cloud-based servers delivers shared computing power and does, in effect, for computing power what carpooling does for automobile emissions.

Other ways to make data centers more efficient places and positively impact the overall carbon footprint include air flow management, minimized use of air conditioning and implementing free cooling.

The impact of the Internet of Things and more

The rise and rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) can have a positive effect too. Technology-enabled options that have come along as technology has evolved include mobile apps like video conferencing and M2M solutions like smart building management – both of which have affirmative environmental impacts. The overall effect of the IoT is also projected to be a positive one, with new solutions like these potentially cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 16.5 percent, a reduction of 9.1 gigatonnes of CO2, by 2020.

In addition to these solutions, technology is coming up with new ways of making the world greener all round too. ICT has made possible the development of ‘smart grid’ technology, leveraging the internet’s ability to transport vast amounts of energy data to make bustling urban developments more energy-efficient places to live and work. The aforementioned video conferencing contributes to reducing the number of business flights needed. So the internet can have a two-fold impact on the environment and its own carbon footprint; finding ways to use technology in smarter ways and also coming up with new, greener solutions all the time.

Tech industry giants like Google, Microsoft and Apple have all committed to green policies and have invested heavily in environmental initiatives. As technology continues to evolve, the onus is on ICT to keep on making itself greener to the benefit of all.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.