by Noah D'Mello

How the IT industry is weathering the climate change storm

May 31, 2016
AnalyticsBig DataBusiness

World leaders have accepted the fact that climate change is real and cannot be taken lightly anymore. But is the IT industry doing its part when the ice caps at the poles are melting?

At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, the European Union and 185 countries pledged to take charge of the alarming situation of climate change. During this conference, India was applauded by world leaders for making substantial contribution to the pact. The Indian government can make headway with these promises only if the various energy-intensive sectors take concrete steps to reduce the effect of climate change. Is the information technology sector one of these? If so, what is it doing to make the earth greener?

It is not a surprise when figures suggest that sectors like manufacturing, automotive and coal have the highest carbon footprint. IT may not be one of the energy-intensive sectors, but companies are aware that technology can play a major role to soften the blow of climate change in the near future.

The emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is one of the major contributors for the increase in the global average temperature. At the Paris summit, leaders committed to hold this increase to well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. India, which is the fourth highest GHG emitting nation, said that it would reduce its emissions intensity by 33-35 percent by 2030, compared with its 2005 levels.

Also know: How Climate Affects Datacenters

A 2008 report by The Climate Group on behalf of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative found that IT is key in the fight against climate change. IT could enable emissions reductions of 15 percent of business-as-usual GHG emissions by 2020. This compares with the estimated 2-2.5 percent of global GHG emissions that are directly due to the use of IT today.

Efforts to reduce GHG emission

Taking into account the above factors, companies now have extensive sustainability policies for the reduction of GHG emissions. While Infosys has reduced its per capita energy consumption by nearly 50 percent since 2008, SAP aims to reduce the net GHG emissions from its operations to levels of the year 2000 by 2020.

Dell’s global flexible work programs helped the company avoid 6,700 metric tons of GHG emissions last year—this is equivalent to eliminating nearly 16 million miles driven. Additionally, Dell reduced GHG emissions from facilities and logistics by 8 percent.

Since 1990, IBM’s conservation actions have saved 6.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity consumption, avoided 4.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and saved the company $550 million.

Building a greener environment

Unlike sectors like manufacturing and automobile, where the major contributor for GHG emissions is industrial waste in the form of smoke and wastewater, buildings and campuses contribute the most in the IT sector. According to United Nations Environment Programme for Sustainable Buildings and Climate Change, buildings approximately account for 33 percent of total GHG emissions.

Efficient energy management systems are now deployed by most IT companies. The central command centres in facilities also regulate the energy usage across all campuses. These centres get feedback on the energy usage in various buildings, which is then relayed to the source location.

The Infosys campus in Hyderabad was the first radiant cooled commercial building in India. Such cooling provides 33 percent better efficiency than the highly efficient air conditioned building.

Most of the materials sourced for VMware’s Bangalore campus, such as furniture, flooring, carpets, and paints, are low on toxicity and have zero carbon footprint. For example, the carpet selected has zero carbon emission, while the workstation has high percentage of recycled materials.

Almost all large enterprises have data centres on premise. The power consumed by these data centres is extremely high, which increases the GHG emissions. Organizations have realized the importance of employing green data centres and using renewable energy sources to power these centres for reduction in the carbon emission.

During the Paris Climate Conference, India has pledged to source 40 percent of its electricity needs from renewable sources such as solar energy and wind energy. Technologies can be deployed to manage the electricity grid with smart meters and then integrate it with renewable energy technologies.

For low energy consumption, almost all campuses utilize renewable energy sources such as solar energy and wind energy. Most organizations also use rainwater harvesting techniques for the efficient use of water within campuses.

Travelling to reduce pollution

In a traffic-intensive city like Bangalore, the use of vehicles for commuting should be as minimal as possible. This helps in reducing the congestion on the roads as well as brings down the pollution levels. In IT companies, employee travel is another reason for the ever increasing carbon footprint.

Almost all major IT companies provide cabs or common bus system to reduce the incremental vehicles onto roads. Organizations also encourage people to use cycles for commuting. Companies such as VMware provide complete compensation to employees using existing public transportation to get to and from work.

To decrease car-related emissions, SAP, which had around 300 electric cars globally by the end of 2015, plans to increase the portion of e-cars (or alternatives) in the company car fleet from the current 1 percent to 20 percent by 2020.

SAP has invested in technologies that enable virtual collaboration, such as video conferencing platforms that reduce the need for employees to travel. Moreover, more than 100 collaboration rooms have been installed throughout SAP with more planned for 2016.

Recycling and waste management

Another effective way to reduce the companies’ carbon footprint is recycling. Recycling reduces the need to extract elements through activities like mining and deforestation, and also less fossil fuel needs to be burnt for manufacturing.

From 1995 through the end of 2014, IBM documented the collection and processing of approximately 2.1 billion pounds of product and product waste worldwide.

In campuses, there is considerable amount of food wastage. This is mostly used for composting, which is again used to prepare food in most of the facilities. Companies such as Mindtree and Infosys have installed technologies such as biogas plants and organic waste converters to treat their food waste on-site.

The Dell India team last year launched an initiative to eliminate paper drinking cups at all their facilities, where team members were encouraged to bring reusable cups from home, resulting in the elimination of over 17 million cups. It was also the first in industry to offer a computer made with certified closed-loop recycled plastics from our recycling programs.

How is technology helping?

IT is among the most effective ways to combat global warming. Companies have realized this and now provide extensive solutions to various governments and institutes to help them curb the climate change issue.

Technologies such as big data and Internet of Things are being deployed to provide greener solutions. “IoT can save energy and carbon footprints through multiple ways, for example, monitoring sprinkler systems to save water, or using  sensors to help fossil fuel automobiles use optimal routes and thus reduce their fuel consumption and wastage,” said Mahesh Nayak H, Chief Operating Officer, SAP Labs India.

He also said that hackathons are becoming more mainstream these days with companies, organizations, and governments using this platform to garner fresh ideas to save the environment.

According to Renuka Rajagopal, Director, Real Estate and Workplace at VMware, the combination of virtualization and cloud computing significantly reduces the carbon footprint of organizations.

“Cloud computing for example is more energy efficient as central datacenters can be more efficiently managed in terms of power and cooling than if those servers were spread across each organization or office location. Virtualization helps reduce the number of physical servers required to do the same amount of work. Reduced number of servers means less energy being consumed not only to power the server but also energy required to cool those servers,” she said.

For the Chinese government, IBM has developed a renewable energy forecasting system solution that combines weather prediction and big-data analytics to enable utility companies to forecast the amount of energy that will be available to be directed into the grid or stored, thus helping to ensure that as little as possible is wasted.

Mindtree launched an initiative two years ago, I Got Garbage, which uses cloud-based technology to solve waste management problems in urban spaces.

The climate business

Companies now not only treat sustainability initiatives as a good gesture to the environment but also something that can ensure profitability for businesses in the long run. “Sustainability initiatives are also business goals, which is why they are embedded in the business practices and are prioritized in the CEO’s agenda,” said Sudipta Das, Partner–Advisory Services, EY India.

He also said that sustainability initiatives are cost effective, as all the above initiatives are not only aimed toward the betterment of the environment but also in reducing the operational cost of the services.

According to Das, sustainability initiatives are simply not the prerogatives of large enterprises just because they have higher rates of emissions. “All these initiatives are necessary for smaller enterprises as well since they have a high carbon footprint per revenue. They will also benefit by these initiatives. However, they might not call it sustainability initiatives, rather cost effective initiatives. Nomenclatures may be different but all are tagged into the same things,” he added.

The coming decade is crucial for the nation and the world to take substantial efforts in making the world habitable for the next generation. The IT industry may contribute, although in smaller quantities, to the increasing carbon emissions in the environment, but the sector has set an example and is ready with solutions for this man-made crisis which is upon us.