January 15, 2009

CO2 Emissions From IT Sector A Growing Concern

As global warming concerns move beyond conventional targets such as aviation, heavy industry and coal plants, the computing sector is falling under growing scrutiny over total energy consumption and CO2 emissions from data centers.

Indeed, analysts say the information and communication technology (ICT) now contributes 2 percent of global carbon emissions, and has grown to rival aviation in its contribution to global warming.  

"(The computing) industry has been profligate in electrical activity. No one cared about CO2 over the last 10 years. Suddenly people care about it, the availability of electricity is now a limiting factor," said Simon Mingay, a chief analyst at Gartner Inc., during an interview with Reuters.

Analysts project the ICT sector will grow its carbon emissions by 6 percent annually, twice the 3 percent growth seen in the aviation sector, according to a 2008 International Air Transport Association (IATA) report.  The ICT sector growth is being driven by insatiable demand for computing hardware, software and services.

For instance, personal computer ownership is expected to quadruple to 4 billion machines by 2020, with emissions doubling, said a 2008 report by The Climate Group.

However, a recent media report that a single Internet search requires half the energy as boiling a pot of water was false, according to Internet search giant Google Inc.  But the media fanfare over the controversial issue demonstrated the ways in which the industry is now in the spotlight.

"It is in the industry's interest to be more efficient. Information technology has a significant role to play in tapping climate change," said Mingay, adding that the increase in emissions would move the industry towards greater efficiency.

However, Jos Olivier, a scientist at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, said the number of green initiatives by tech firms are still fairly small, and do not focus on inefficient CO2 emitting data centers.

"A lot of these green plans are aimed at computers and not for the so called data hotels (centers), other IT technologies and big servers," he told Reuters, adding that the sector emits around 3 percent of The Netherlands' national CO2 emissions.

Other developed nations likely have similar emission figures.

"Since OECD [developed] countries account for almost half the global total CO2 emissions, and countries in other regions have much less ICT equipment in households and offices, the percentage of global CO2 emissions at 2 or 3 percent will probably be the right order of magnitude."

The data used to calculate the industry's carbon emissions vary widely, even within specific segments such as data centers, Olivier said.

With China and India driving technological adoption, along with growing demand for laptops, mobile phones, and broadband Internet access, the sector's carbon footprint is poised to grow significantly. The Climate group predicts that the number of broadband users will triple to nearly 900 million by 2020, with emissions doubling throughout the entire telecommunications infrastructure.

On Thursday, Britain gave its approval for the addition of  a third runway at London's Heathrow airport, the world's busiest international airport, in a move that delighted the aviation industry but deeply disappointed environmentalists.


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