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% and 3% 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:
- The risks of global warming/climate change have made energy use and related emissions the core of the environmental movement, effectively crowding out other concerns.
- In developed economies, the cost of extracting toxic substances from retired electronic products substantially exceeds the resulting value, making it an unattractive business, usually moved offshore.
- Governments have been reluctant to seriously regulate the fast-moving, prosperous and influential IT industry, especially in the U.S. and Asia.
- Keeping the market's emphasis on reducing server and PC energy consumption is appealing to IT manufacturers as it helps convince customers to buy new equipment. Emphasizing the adverse effects of rapid obsolescence and e-waste would have the opposite effect.
- IT customers have been advised that outsourcing recycling to a specialist firm is an industry best practice and have had little incentive or ability to assess what actually happens to various 'recycled' IT products.
- The public remains largely uninformed and apathetic, especially outside of Europe. Many people simply don't realize there is anything wrong with throwing out old IT products in their everyday bagged trash.
- Buying more energy-efficient computers is relatively easy. But there is no simple way to build toxin-free computers or safely retire today's toxin-dependent systems.
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.