During last month’s Information Age Effective IT conference, Richard Barrington, the head of eco-responsibility for Sun Microsystems in Europe, gave delegates a choice: you can either believe some 2,500 scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who say that global warming is caused by man; or you can believe Jeremy Clarkson, the chummy presenter of BBC’s Top Gear television programme about cars, who just likes fast, noisy, smelly vehicles.
To be fair to Clarkson, he is not entirely alone. Academics Fred Singer and Dennis T Avery, in their recent book Unstoppable Global Warming, argue that climate change is due to natural causes, while President George Bush and prominent naturalist David Bellamy have both taken confusing positions that at best encourage doubt. And, of course, let’s not forget Robert W Felix, whose web site ‘Iceagenow.com’ argues that glaciers around the world are growing, and sea levels are falling (Oh no!).
Barrington’s point, of course, is that the nature of the climate change debate has moved on, and that now the discussion is all about control and damage limitation, not about the causes. Or, as Arnold Schwarzenegger put it: “The debate is over. The science is in. The time to act is now.”
Barrington was invited to speak at the Effective IT conference because, as we all know intuitively but have not perhaps fully grasped in the carbon context, IT uses up a lot of power (see Information Age, July 2006). According to the Carbon Trust, which Barrington cites, 30% of corporate energy bills are IT related. Furthermore, he tells us, IT consumes the energy equivalent to 1,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2. That is not just a lot – it is enough for IT directors to start getting worried: they could be the next pariahs. They need to act.
And this is where things get altogether muddier. Because accepting the logic of the argument is not the same as taking the appropriate actions.
Take Barrington, an articulate, persuasive and passionate advocate for the green cause. He argued that of all the major IT suppliers, Sun has taken the most environmentally friendly stance, with low-power processors and its low-power, low-maintenance and long-lasting thin client devices (even if few people buy them). He may well be right – but as a delegate also pointed out, Sun also sells extremely powerful but power-hungry servers that consume over 14 kilowatts per rack – so much that that one customer in the warm South of France struggled to source enough energy to run the machine and the air conditioning.
Barrington gallantly accepted the point – after all, we all are on a journey and Sun needs to make its money. He believes that market forces, the risings cost of energy, as well as leadership from companies such as Sun, will encourage the IT industry to reduce power consumption over time.
If reconciling contradictory positions proves difficult for IT companies, it is even more so for others. Oil giant BP is attempting re-invent itself as “Beyond Petroleum” but its revenues will be oil-based for decades and decades to come. Exxon is winding down its support for “climate change deniers” but its stance – that climate change is a “century long problem” to be solved over time – is looking distinctly uncomfortable. And Virgin’s founder Richard Branson has got himself into a real mess trying to offset carbon emissions and invest in renewable or low polluting fuels – while simultaneously running not just an airline, but a completely unnecessary space travel company, Virgin Galactica.
Most IT users won’t face dilemmas on this scale – but they will face some tricky decisions. Who, for example, will be willing to take Windows PCs away from screaming users, on the grounds that thin clients are more eco-friendly? Who will choose a more power-efficient server over one which has better performance statistics? Which managers will justify their decision to invest in videoconferencing by cutting back on sales jaunts and conference attendance? Who will reject one favoured supplier in favour of another with better carbon stats?
Many, of course, will do exactly that, religiously pursuing eco-friendly policies, perhaps for the best reasons, or just because of an edict from management. But most executives, desperate not to lose competitive edge, will hope, in vain, that the right thing to do for economic or technical reasons will magically align with the environmental imperative. They should not expect this strategy to work: as they wait, not only will the planet get hotter, but so will the legislators. And some competitors might even embrace the problem and find a way to leap ahead.