IT: Part of the Problem, or Part of the Solution?

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IT is a serious polluter – but it’s also the key to reducing carbon outputs, says Dr Hamadoun Touré of the ITU. We can use technology to slash our emissions, and still save the third world, he says. And while we are about it, why does every phone ship with a new power supply?

So how does this work in practice, on the environmental issue? A pie chart in the ITU’s submission to the 2008 Kyoto summit PDF breaks down the environmental costs of all the IT components in the world It looks a lot like the pie charts that would face any CIO charged with reducing the company’s carbon footprint – and seems just as hard to reduce.

Vast tracts of ICT-emitted carbon comes from devices that are not under the control of the ITU – or anyone else. It’s all in PCs, TVs and other client devices. The same is true for organisations of course, and while CIOs try to take control of the company’s laptops, Dr Touré doesn’t have that option: “End users should not be under control, otherwise we would lose market competitiveness.”

Despite this, he wants to make devices more efficient: “We are working with manufacturers to make sure that power saving standby modes are standardised.” And he’s even more determined on power supplies.

“We should find a way to standardise power supplies for mobile phones,” he says. “Take two phones, even from the same manufacturer, and you have to use different power supplies. Why should I have to buy a new power supply with my phone? I have ten at home, but none work with the new one! And the power supply should turn itself off when the phone is charged!”

Networks could also be greener: “Every click you make, search engines are using energy,” he says, echoing widely reported and disputed stories about the energy consumption of Google searches. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that story, there are ways to reduce Internet energy consumption, for instance with content networks that store files more locally, he says: “Shifting 500 million downloads from local application stores – that is a significant example of why we should be optimistic about innovation.”

Does he practice what he preaches though? “I’ve cut on my travels by ten percent at least, and we are experimenting with videoconferencing, telepresence, and web seminars. Many of our focus groups work virtually – you don’t have to be in Geneva any more. We are an ICT company, and we are using the tools we advocate.”

When Dr Touré took office in Jan 2007, the first thing he did was to make his own boardroom paperless. “I think we are almost 90 percent there now. Our environmental council meeting in October was 90 percent paperless – and we did it smoothly, without forcing members to do it.”

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