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Green IT: sustainable communications and information technology

Information technology is becoming sustainable. Green IT is the latest buzzword being promoted by computer manufacturers with the aim of making communication greener.

Computers, laptops and mobile devices – information technology (IT) is not only a booming economic sector but also an energy-intensive one. It accounts for 2% of human greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as evidenced in a study by Global Action Plan, a UK-based environmental organisation. This figure can be reduced if the green segment, or Green IT, continues to grow. Sustainability is already a dominant trend in the sector.

There are several questions to be asked here, for instance: Is a device manufactured in an eco-friendly manner? Is it energy efficient? Can it be recycled easily? Does it have a long lifecycle? In other words, it is all about good materials, low energy consumption, and cash that each and every consumer can save, thanks to more efficient, longer-lasting products.

Sustainability ranking for the IT sector

There is still no international or European label for Green IT products. Some companies such as Sony Ericsson (‘Green Heart’) have developed labels, but it is difficult to check their quality. A Greenpeace ranking provides some guidance: the Guide to Greener Electronics evaluates 15 large IT companies according to how good their products are for the environment. US-based manufacturer Hewlett Packard currently heads the list, with Blackberry manufacturer RIM coming in last. Apple is ranked 4, receiving good marks for recycling but poor marks for energy consumption.

What are the specific trends that can be identified? First of all, we need to look in the basement at the servers, which are often old and use a great deal of energy inefficiently – also indirectly because air conditioners are required to keep the server rooms cool. Hence there is a trend to set up fewer but more efficient servers. Experts talk about ‘virtualisation’. The larger computing centres in companies and research institutes in particular can make substantial energy savings like this.

Green IT: saving energy with cloud computing

Energy can also be saved through cloud computing, namely the principle of outsourcing the programmes and functions of one’s own computer to service providers over the internet. This also means sharing storage capacity with others. In this case, smaller devices, some purely mobile, are all that is required to handle large volumes of data.

Many of the clever ideas connected with Green IT and sustainability involve the joint use of purely virtual space. ‘Digital sharing’ would be another way of putting it. This is highlighted by IT fairs, such as CeBIT in Hanover, the largest computer show in the world. New ideas and programmes for video conferences are presented here that are designed to prevent people from taking unnecessary flights and to be climate-friendly by shifting business meetings to their own desk. Even more can be done in this area: energy can be saved by using a laptop instead of a large desktop computer at workplaces or in home offices. This is because laptop components are energy optimised, primarily to ensure that the battery lasts longer.

If modern LCD monitors are also brought into the picture, the result is even better. In contrast, traditional CRT monitors have a particularly high energy consumption. A classic green IT tip is to abandon the power-guzzling stand-by mode. We now have a range of different electrical sockets with on-off switches that should be deployed when using electronic devices for longer periods.

Paying attention to eco-friendly materials

Another aspect of Green IT is the material used for electronic devices, for the manufacture of which several toxic metals are used. A great deal of water is also used during production. The reserves of some of the elements, such as the rare earth elements (a group of metals), are being depleted the world over. Recycling is therefore gaining in importance. These issues are being followed by the climate protection organisation Germanwatch through an awareness-raising campaign called ‘makeITfair’. Diverse publications on Green IT, recycling and sustainable electronics can be found on the website.

Lifecycle thinking and lifecycle engineering are issues that also figure in IT research, for example, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) in Berlin. The Institute’s researchers have helped develop a particularly eco-friendly computer that has been awarded the European Union’s Ecolabel. The iameco computer, made by the Irish company MicroPro, is a touchscreen PC housed in a wooden case and is low on energy consumption. According to the manufacturers, the computer requires 70% less power than traditional computers, one of the reasons being that the entire product concept prioritises recycling; it should be possible to recycle 98% of the computer, as several standard components have been built in, making it easier to repair. There are also eco-friendly LEDs for the monitor and a particularly energy-efficient cooler.

These and similar Green IT products can now be admired at a number of fairs. Besides Cebit, there is Electronic Goes Green, which is held in Berlin every four years and which has developed into the largest meet in the world on achieving sustainability in the electronics industry.

February 2013

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