IT is responsible for the same level of CO2 emissions as the aviation industry, according to new figures from IT industry analysts Gartner.
The study estimates that CO2 emissions released during the manufacture, distribution and use of ICT equipment are responsible for approximately two percent of total global carbon emissions - making ICT as polluting as the airline industry.
The estimates were based on figures for average energy use and global market size for PCs, servers and associated cooling infrastructure, fixed and mobile telephony, local area network (LAN), office telecommunications and printers. Estimates for the embodied carbon emitted during the design, manufacture and distribution of PCs and cell phones were also added to the total giving a figure for ICT's total carbon footprint.
Simon Mingay, research vice president at Gartner, said the final estimate was reasonably accurate, but admitted that with figures for the embodied carbon of servers and printers unavailable and with a wide range of consumer electronics not included in the research it could be argued the IT industry's overall carbon emissions are greater still.
"When we were going through the numbers and they were beginning to stack up it really did become pretty sobering," he said. "You also have to consider that if nothing is done IT's CO2 emissions are only going to increase."
He added that the revelation that IT is responsible for the same level of CO2 emissions as aviation meant the sector could expect "greater scrutiny" from regulators and customers in the future as concerns about emissions continue to grow.
However, Gartner insisted that while IT's enormous carbon footprint was a cause for concern the IT industry was in a far better position to tackle the problem than its counterparts in the airline sector.
"The good news is that because there are such big inefficiencies [in IT] there are opportunities to make big improvements in carbon emissions pretty quickly," said Mingay.
He argued that simple steps such as optimising datacentre layout to reduce cooling requirements, encouraging staff to turn off PCs and making better use of automated turn-off capabilities could slash IT's carbon emissions with minimal investment. "The problem of PC's being left on, for example, is death by a thousand cuts," he said. "Everyone thinks that leaving their machine on makes little difference, which is true, but if you consider up to 60 percent of PCs are left on overnight the cumulative effect for 880m PCs worldwide is massive."
Gartner also predicted that with half of IT departments expected to declare an environmental strategy and over one third likely to have one or more environmental criteria in their top six buying criteria by 2010 IT vendors would make rapid strides in limiting carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and distribution processes.
"Embodied carbon accounts for well over half of IT equipments' lifetime CO2 emissions and there is currently no differentiator between different machines' embodied carbon because all the vendors have the same supply chain," observed Mingay. "But they will soon all start doing full environmental lifecycle assessments and when they do that they will recognise opportunities to improve efficiency. I'd expect to see vendors make progress over the next two to three years and begin to try and differentiate themselves based on their full energy lifecycle."
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