Green Initiatives: Sustainability is the Elephant in the Room, CIO Says

Keys to greening IT include sustaining the effort, virtualization, energy management, buying green, telework and institutionalizing the drive.

by / December 5, 2008 0

Photo: Electronic waste is a global issues communities can't continue to ignore as discarded electronics swamp the developing world.

Green is the new green. Green is good. Amid these tough economic times, individuals and organizations across America are finding ways to be good to the environment while being good to the wallet. But information technology, a powerful engine of the U.S. economy, is expected to grow and continue to produce as much green house gas as the airline industry-even when fewer people are traveling. "We're expecting the information communications technology sector will increase its emissions by 150 percent-that's business as usual if we don't do anything," Shell Culp, CIO California Department of Toxic Substances, told state technology workers during a session on sustainability at the Best of California 2008 program last Wednesday.

"If we increase our activity in technology, we're actually putting more planes in the air, essentially, from a global CO2 emissions standpoint," And that doesn't include the energy used in manufacturing the technology. "So we're not as green as we would like to think we are.

"Our biggest benefit is going to be helping other parts of our economy reduce their environmental footprint. So we do have a very large role to play enabling efficiencies in other sectors."

A recent Forrester survey found that 40 percent of businesses believe protecting the environment is very important, while 50 percent of respondents incorporate environmentally-friendly criteria into their purchasing requirements. According to the same survey, 80 percent recycle information technology products at the end of their life.

The top three reasons for organizations focusing on greening IT are reducing energy use, protecting the environment and using the greening process to align IT with business strategy.

"Business as usual is unsustainable. We're running out of power, we're running out of space, we're running out of budget," Culp said.

In a Gartner survey of strategies for greening information technology, only two strategies concerned anything outside the data center. Yet, only 25 percent of the session attendees at the Best of California held Wednesday in Sacramento, worked in a data center.

Desktop energy management and desktop virtualization are two strategies agencies can use as they look to improve their carbon footprints. And that makes sense because desktop computing accounts for 45 percent of global carbon emissions from information technology.

Using desktop virtualization to push hosted desktops to thin clients has several benefits including reducing costs, improved security and disaster recovery and the potential for a longer product life cycle, according to a spokesperson from Wyse Technology, a maker of thin computing devices. Reed Managed Services, based in Britain, deployed thin clients in establishing a new office in Australia. "We've managed to reduce our carbon footprint by 2,500 tons in 2006 and a similar amount in 2007" with the help of thin clients, Sean Whetstone, head of IT services at Reed Managed Services, said.

But that's not the only strategy. There are plenty of ways to make an impact on the carbon footprint of desktop environment that Culp said are "especially kind of easy." These changes are "people-focused" and "they need to recognize they need to have that focus," she said, and agencies "need to build some people systems to monitor and measure [efforts toward environmental sustainability] ... and sustain that activity."

But defining a green IT strategy is eluding the state so far, Culp said. There are some efforts at the statewide level, but agencies should also look at developing a strategy for themselves, she said. "We need to establish a baseline, use some metrics that are realistic and then, of course, we need to buy green IT products and services, which we get lots of help with the Department of General Services and the focus on Energy Star equipment."

Strategies for Sustainability

  • Put someone in charge of "green" in your organization.
  • Build some enthusiasm in the workplace around the initiative.
    "When you're thinking about building enthusiasm in the workplace, don't overlook some of the things that are important to your employees," Culp said. Additionally, agencies can harness the energy of younger workers by asking them to solve important issues-such as worker health and indoor air quality.
  • Telework -- "Use more laptops. Those are actually cleaner than any of the desktops at this point."
  • Buy green.
  • Collaborative technologies (such as real-time remote video conferencing) can help reduce emissions by reducing travel.
  • Implement an environmental management system.
    "That's the old adage--you can't manage what you can't measure." To help with that, the International Standards Organization has compiled ISO standard 14000-1 for managing an agency's environmental footprint.
  • Put more government services online.

Electronic waste (i.e. discarded monitors, computers and cell phones) is a huge problem. People in the United States throw away 130,000 computers a day while over 426,000 cell phones are deactivated each day. Energy waste is the fastest growing component of municipal waste and "we have to do better as administrators," Culp said.

She highlighted a 60 Minutes segment that focused on the recycling of electronics and how that waste actually gets dumped in a second or third world country.

Think Holistically
"How can your individual agency look at their greenhouse gas emissions or their materials consumed or their water contamination?" Culp challenged the audience.

Technology companies will have to make products that don't pollute. "We have to make sure we have identified a product's next use before it gets sold so that we don't have waste," she said.

If agencies don't know how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, they will soon, Culp said. There are already several tools available that can help an agency calculate its carbon footprint, and there will be more shortly. Additionally, "AB 32 suggests government will lead the way in understanding how this will be rolled out to the private sector or to the rest of the state."

The question the state's technology professionals have to ask is how can IT help reduce agencies' consumption of materials and water and reduce human and environmental risks? Culp believes the key here is to use geospatial technology more effectively.

"It will be your IT systems that help us" arrive at a more sustainable future, she told the audience.

Culp noted that the California Environmental Protection Agency is in danger of losing certification on its environmental management system. "We have an audit periodically about how well we are doing with our environmental management system -- and it is not good at all. And we are the state's environmental agency," she said. "So I understand it is going to be difficult for state government to do better at this. We're having a hard time getting our act together."

Culp has plenty of war stories and lessons learned she could share. "And it's all around sustaining the effort. It's all around identifying the resources, picking somebody to be the green steward and then giving them the authority to get down to it," she said. "It's all a people thing. Get people off the road, take government to them and sustain that effort," she urged.