Rapid advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) have revolutionised business and transformed societies. ICT can boost prosperity, lead to business innovation and help to mitigate environmental damage caused by commercial activities. The 2013 Network Readiness Index, suggested ICT could help lift over half a billion people out of poverty in the next decade. However, the lifecycle of an ICT from its manufacture to operation and final disposal has a potential for negative and positive environmental impact, often correlated to energy costs.
Green ICT policies are applicable and relevant to any organisation and a key part of any sustainability journey. ICT’s main direct impact for end users is energy consumption, making Green ICT a key player in reducing business energy costs and becoming more sustainable. Wider direct impacts such as e-waste and end of life considerations make green ICT a vital part of any organisations sustainability aims. ICT’s indirect impacts can reduce emissions in organisational activities such as substituting travelling by air with tele conferencing software.
All aspects of an ICT’s lifecycle (Figure 1) should be considered. Users of ICT only typically interact with the ‘In-Use’ lifecycle stage making other stage impacts seemingly invisible; such as exporting old ICT equipment to dump sites in developing nations in the ‘End of Life’ stage, or the heat and wasted electricity from ICT equipment.
Therefore, to be a truly ‘Green’ ICT, its total lifecycle environmental impact should be ‘net positive’. That is simply, the sum of an ICT’s positive impacts outweighing the sum of its negative impacts across the entire lifecycle of the ICT. In practice, this calculation is difficult to precisely calculate at each stage of an ICT’s lifecycle. Furthermore, there are many direct and indirect impacts to be taken into account. The main direct impacts are often energy consumption and the use and disposal of toxic elements – this is always negative and the aim here is to minimise impact through efficiency measures. The use and systemic impacts of ICT can be positive and outweigh the negative impacts. Software is at the heart of these indirect impacts as it can be used to abate emissions from physical processes. For example, using tele conferencing instead of traveling by car or air. Cloud computing can be used to host entire organisations on-site server farms using virtualisation techniques to reduce physical servers being used.
To combat the complexity of lifecycle impact calculations, manufacturers and environmental certification groups provide an array of impact information on the main stages of an ICT’s lifecycle (For example, Energy Star and EPEAT). Specialist organisations also offer ICT measurement and management services, tool sets and calculation methodologies to define, calculate and manage ICT impact which can be potentially variable.
For a detailed overview of the different impacts of ICT see Qingtech’s web page guide specially authored to complement this question.