The Green IT movement has lost the plot

E-waste, and not energy conservation, is what really matters

When it comes to environmental sustainability, the information technology community has seriously mistaken its priorities. Our latest research has confirmed what we have been saying for four years. The IT industry is already energy-neutral in terms of its consumption and savings, but there is still no credible scenario for safely managing the global production and disposal of literally billions of personal computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices. Yet even today, improving the energy efficiency of IT equipment is still the overwhelming focus of the Green IT community.

While energy efficiency is recommended business hygiene, the total energy consumption of IT hardware is not a serious societal problem. Most estimates suggest that all of the world's data centers, PCs and networks consume between 1.5 per cent and three per cent of the world's energy. While precise measurements are always difficult, does anyone seriously doubt that the IT-enabled energy savings stemming from e-commerce, telecommuting, teleconferencing, digital newspapers, virtual offices, smart buildings, smart products, etc. aren't enough to offset this? For much more on assessing and measuring the energy implications of applied IT, see our latest research .

The iPhone alone has eliminated most of my needs for cameras, address books, reference books, newspapers, maps, guides, CD players, clocks, watches and, eventually, land lines, radios, credit cards and even PCs. Given the implicit energy savings, the electricity used by the actual device is a second-order sustainability issue at most.

However, the flip side of the amazing technological progress that has made the iPhone possible is rapid product obsolescence and ever-rising piles of electronic waste (e-waste), much of it disposed of in either illegal or unethical ways, usually in the developing world. Put simply, Moore's Law, the driving dynamic behind IT innovation for the last 50 years, is fundamentally not green, and perhaps not even sustainable -- at least, not yet.

And yet this much more pressing problem has received only a tiny fraction of the attention given to IT energy consumption. Why?

We have identified seven main reasons why society's green IT priorities have been so skewed toward energy consumption and away from the increasingly pressing e-waste challenge:

For these reasons, much of the IT community has turned a blind eye toward some truly appalling global practices and conditions, with the developing world too often used as an e-waste dumping ground, often harming the poorest of nations and people. This problem is only getting worse, as the number of devices built, sold and thrown away rapidly increases. While there is no quick fix, recasting the sustainability debate is an essential starting point.

Now might be the right time. Over the last few years, the climate change movement has lost considerable momentum. People can debate whether this has been due to the recession, politics, cold winters, Climategate, disinenguous skeptics or other factors. It is probably a mix of all of the above.

But for the IT industry, it is an opportunity to revisit the one issue that it can really control -- improving the production and retirement of all manner of IT devices. This should be the number one green IT priority for the next few years. Too much time has been wasted already.

David Moschella is the research director for CSC's Leading Edge Forum.

Read more about green it in Computerworld's Green IT Topic Center.

Tags hardwareMobile and WirelesstelecommunicationGreen data centerhardware systemsgreen ITmobileenvironment

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