Sanity check: Green IT - Does it matter for business?

Hear the arguments for why Green IT is one of the next big trends in tech, and hear the counterpoints for simply labeling it an inconsequential fad. Plus, get a perspective on the impact Green IT could have on how IT does business.

In early 2005, the collective will was building for energy conservation and environmental good citizenship -- at least that's the way it felt if you were living in San Francisco, California. The rest of the United States hadn't decided to take those issues seriously yet.

But that was before gasoline spiked to $3.50 per gallon. It was before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. It was before a string of three summers with record heat. And it was before the movie An Inconvenient Truth drastically changed the public perception of human-induced climate change and the potential crisis that it could induce.

Those issues combined with the fact that the technology world is centered in environmentally-conscious Northern California have led to the nascent concept of "Green IT." Because the concept is new, it's useful to take a look at what Green IT is, why its proponents see it as one of the next big trends in IT, and why its detractors think the whole concept is flawed.

What is Green IT?

Green IT is the technology industry's way of asking itself what role it should play in the global movement toward building a more sustainable civilization. The answer is typically three-fold:

  1. Minimize energy use
  2. Reduce CO2 emissions
  3. Better manage electronic waste

Why Green IT is important

While many in Silicon Valley and in the environmental movement have very altruistic reasons for pursuing green initiatives -- "passing on a sustainable world to our children" -- there are also very pragmatic reasons that this is becoming a major concern for businesses:

  • The cost of energy
  • Concerns over the future supply of energy
  • Exploding use of energy as data centers expand
  • Threat of government regulation of energy consumption
  • First targets for Kyoto Protocol (reducing greenhouse gases) coming in 2008-2012
  • Growing political support for managing and regulating CO2 emissions

"You need to pay attention to green IT issues now and have plans in place to move yourself forward. If you fail to do so, you face serious risks in the next five years," said Martin Reynolds, a Gartner Managing Vice President, at the recent Gartner Sympsium ITxpo on Emerging Technologies, where Green IT was the topic of five different sessions.

"If the climate science and carbon abatement projections are close to being correct, and assuming society is willing and able to respond, then we are headed toward a low-carbon economy," according to Simon Mingay, Research Vice President at Gartner. Mingay defines a low-carbon economy as "an economy in which the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is halted and reduced, and in which greenhouse gases have a cost and/or are capped, enforced through one or more measures."

Kyoto was one of the first steps down that road.

Why some call Green IT a fad or a myth

As a hot new concept, Green IT also has its critics -- even within the same analyst organizations that trumpet it. For example, French Caldwell, another Research VP at Gartner, calls Green IT "a myth." However, he's not saying that Green IT is pure fiction. He is talking about a myth in the literal sense -- a simplified story that is used to explain a much more complex set of circumstances so that the masses can understand it.

Charles Smulders, Gartner Managing VP, went even further. He said that vendors are doing a lot of "greenwashing" right now to sell Green IT products, while IT is responsible for just two percent of global CO2 emissions. He said that population explosion is a much greater concern for CO2 emissions and that attention should be directed toward that. He also claimed that measuring CO2 emissions isn't consistent and so it's difficult for IT to even gauge its status.

At the Symposium on Emerging Trends, Caldwell also argued that some people grasp on to concepts like "Green IT" with religious fervor in order to feel like they are doing something good for the environment. He thinks it's much more useful for IT to simply focus on reducing power consumption.

However, Caldwell admitted, "The Green IT myth is useful in building business cases for infrastructure and investment renewal, and for improving the corporation's license to operate."

Bottom line for IT leaders

Green IT is essentially a rallying call for tech to take a proactive approach in its role to energy conservation, climate change, and electronic waste. In some cases, this can also have a very positive effect on the bottom line -- especially in relation to energy savings. For example, IBM plans to save $250 million in power costs over five years as part of its current data center consolidation.

The other two areas -- climate change (CO2 emissions) and electronic waste -- could soon become economic imperatives if and when governments start regulating them and associating fines with non-compliance. This could be coming sooner rather than later. In April, executives of energy utilities ranked the environment and greenhouse gas regulations at the top of their lists of current concerns.

IT organizations should expect to come under scrutiny for their practices in relation to Green IT, in the same way that Google is being put under the microscope for its policies and approach. So I would recommend running a fire drill to put yourself under the microscope first, so that you have a good idea of where you stand. I expect some best practices for doing a Green IT self-audit to emerge during 2008.