IT’s low-carbon role

Suzanne Påhlman wants companies to look beyond the threats that are emerging from global climate change and to focus on the business opportunities. “Companies can move from risk to profit [by] making climate change part of their core business strategy,” says the IT project leader for an initiative backed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and HP that centres on large-scale carbon reduction by business.

And she does not think they have much choice. The unchecked consumption of energy in the West, coupled with the soaring demand for energy by new economic powers such China and India is blatantly unsustainable, both in terms of the world’s dwindling carbon resources and the catastrophic consequences carbon consumption is having on the planet and its inhabitants.

IT to the rescue

“So how do we bridge this gap,” she asks, arguing that the world has about a decade to reverse its 150-year record of accelerating CO2 emission. “This is where the IT industry has a fundamental role to play, and it is really not taking enough credit for the potential that it has.”

To date, the corporate discussions in this area have been focused on IT companies and IT users reducing their own carbon footprint. “What companies and IT organisations [should do] is look at the potential of CO2 reduction [that flows] from the services they provide.

Take the example of Europe’s largest telecoms companies. Together, these 16 companies emit 5 million tonnes of CO2 annually. The discussion among them has been focused on reducing their own carbon footprint. What the WWF looked at was the potential for CO2 reduction from the services these companies were actually providing, says Påhlman.

By looking at a handful of relatively simple applications, such as home working and videoconferencing, they found that they could reduce or help others reduce 50 million tonnes of CO2.

“We look at IT with the view that ‘we’re bad, bad, bad’,” she says, pointing to a recent report by IT advisory group Gartner that calculates that the IT industry is responsible for up to 2% of global CO2 emissions, making it roughly equivalent to the airline industry.

“Instead of simply beating ourselves up and trying to reduce that 2%, we need to open up to the idea of a 50% reduction,” says Påhlman. That is the minimum that IT should have as its goal in the launch of any new service. Why? Because that will only compensate for global population growth. “When we are looking at that 2%, we are simply tweaking by trying to make things 10% or 20% more efficient; we actually need to cut emissions by half.”

She suggests that it may even make sense to grow IT’s consumption of power in order to get there. “Maybe we need to use so much IT that it increases [that 2%], but as a result achieve that 50% reduction.”

But she asks how we can rethink IT to achieve this. “We need to move beyond the internal emission reduction that IT is currently focused on to a discussion of how the business succeeds in a low-carbon economy,” she says.

A smaller footprint

The HP and WWF initiative she leads is looking at how IT can help change lifestyles, working environments and communications to radically reduce carbon footprint. That spans the use of technologies such as virtualisation to make more efficient use of IT infrastructure, the use of IT to optimise building energy usage and the use of communications technologies to cut business travel.

The vision is nothing less than the redefinition of business. “Use the technologies to reinvent, reapply yourself and launch a completely new business model,” she counsels.

If businesses don’t go down this route then when, for example, oil prices make extensive travel unjustifiable, they will suffer as a result of their lack of communication with customers and partners.

Those that do, on the other hand, will come out winners in the new, low-carbon economy

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

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