A Look at Green IT and Sustainability

Green IT and Sustainability

Egg on the Computer Flickr Creative Commons Offbeat Photography

What is the true relationship between the terms "green" and "sustainability" with relation to IT? Consider this (apparently straightforward) attempt to define these two key terms: "While green indicates an awareness of environmental concerns, sustainability is using processes that can be continued within ecological constraints on use of resources."

There’s a problem with this brief explanation. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development created in 1987 (see the first article in this series): An Introduction to Green Computing and Sustainable Development, spawned hundreds of different interpretations of sustainable development. There are now as many different understandings of this vital concept as there are horses. This is highly relevant to any discussion of the relationship between Green IT and sustainability, but why?

Image Credit: Offbeat Photorgraphy (https://www.flickr.com/photos/b1ltr1te/3220445642/sizes/m/)

Equity, Sustainable Development, and the Digital Divide

The Brundtland move and the negotiations that followed in subsequent years at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development were, seen at their best – designed to consider not just the availability and increasing scarcity of natural resources, but in addition, to take into account the notion of ‘equity’ between peoples.

‘Sustainability’ was born as a noble aim which quickly became co-opted and colored by commerce and industry – so much so that some non-governmental organizations now refuse to use the term altogether. Some say the concept is in itself a ‘greenwash.’

The humanitarian aim of the original concept of sustainability included an awareness that reducing the dire effects of global poverty was necessary. "Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations," (Brundtland), has sadly been too often understood as the ability to "continue to make money indefinitely," (with little regard to the over-consumption of natural resources).

The implications of this for those who are genuinely concerned about green IT and sustainability are immense and the Internet community has only just begun to analyze and understand the implications of this trend. See: Behind the Greenwash – a critical look at Dell’s green IT strategy, Green Computing: What Does It Mean? and Green IT and Attitude.

Sustainability, Economics, and Green Computing

If we look at the volumes of carbon emissions produced per head globally, we discover a worrying trend. Put simply, per head of the population, a person in an industrialized country tends to produce far more emissions that a person in a developing country. It seems the greater access a person has to consumer goods (including cars, computers, and mobile computing gadgets), the more carbon emissions are produced.

As far as green IT and sustainability are concerned, we need to know that the volume of natural resources used in the manufacture of computing gadgetry, together with the waste and the carbon emissions produced, can increase exponentially according to the frequency with which these gadgets are exchanged and updated.

An individual in a richer country with a higher standard of living, which enables them to buy more of these material goods (and use them more often) is inevitably going to find themselves responsible for producing more emissions than someone from a poorer country. Reconciling the notions of green IT and true sustainability, therefore, remains an urgent task for us all.

This post is part of the series: Green computing and the triple ‘crunch’

With the credit, climate and energy crisis (the triple ‘crunch’) – we are challenged by the need to reduce carbon emissions and improve the way we use energy-intensive information technologies. What is the anticipated impact of green computing?

This series offers positive and educational insights

  1. An Introduction to Green Computing and Sustainable Development
  2. Green IT and Sustainability
  3. Can Photovoltaic Solar Panels Power a Computer Lab?