A couple days ago I received a quick note from one of my colleagues concerning an activity initiated by the UK government, the "Greening Government ICT: Efficient, Sustainable, Responsible". In this initiative, they aim at making energy consumption of their ICT systems carbon neutral by 2010, and making them carbon neutral across their lifetime (including manufacture and disposal) by 2020. This raised the question of carbon neutrality in my mind. I have heard a number of companies claiming to be carbon neutral, but frankly have never been sure what this meant.
According to an Ezine article, Carbon Neutral - What does it mean?, carbon neutral does not mean that no carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, but rather that the carbon dioxide emitted is balanced by equivalent reductions somewhere else. This can be by using biofuels, which are considered carbon neutral although they release CO2, or by using energy that does not generate CO2, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric or even nuclear. Unfortunately, in the case of biofuel and nuclear, the emissions generated to manufacture the fuel in the first place is not included in the calculation, so this is already a first approximation to remember.
There are three approaches to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil origin, and these are:
- Reduce the amount of energy consumed all together. And this is obviously the best way. I always like to refer to a quote from Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "The best energy is the energy that is not used", seems so logic that the question should be raised why there is not more focus on this approach. According to a study of the WWF, buildings in the US consume twice the energy of similar ones in Europe.
- Replace fossil energy by energy provided from other sources such as wind, solar, wave power, water, biomass etc. Actually the Sun provides the earth in one hour more energy than we require in one year. So, it would seem easy to resolve the CO2 problem, unfortunately not enough investments are made to capture the solar energy. Through increasing those investments, companies can become carbon neutral.
- Buy carbon offsets, this means in simple words, continue emitting as much carbon dioxide as usual, but pay somebody else for capturing a similar amount of CO2. The most common project type is renewable energy, such as wind farms, biomass energy, or hydroelectric dams. Other common project types include energy efficiency projects, the destruction of industrial pollutants or agricultural byproducts, destruction of landfill methane, and forestry projects.
- Scope 1: all direct emissions generated by the company (typically petrol, diesel, refrigerant leaks, process waste and emissions)
- Scope 2: emissions from purchased energy (typically electricity)
- Scope 3: emissions from other indirect sources (typically from purchased material, products or services): these emissions are direct emissions of the suppliers/subcontractors and can be controlled by supply chain management criteria requiring these suppliers/subcontractors to also be Carbon Neutral.
A number of electronic companies have claimed to be "carbon neutral" at this point in time. They typically aim for scope 2. However, knowing that the same companies increasingly outsource their manufacturing, logistics, repair and recycling operations, one could ask what the real impact is of such claim. On top of that, a number of them achieve this through the use of Carbon offset which are actually put in question by a number of studies. Some even go as far as talking about the "Carbon Neutral Myth". So, the question about whether such claims are made more for marketing purpose rather than any other. To somehow illustrate this, Gartner released a study "How Green is the IT Industry", where it analyses progress made by ICT companies in reducing carbon emissions, which should be the ultimate goal isn't it? Well, at least one of the companies claiming to be "carbon neutral", was at the bottom of the list.
So, what is more important for the planet, becoming more carbon neutral or reducing the overall carbon emissions in a company value chain. Frankly, I am voting for the latter. So let's hope that the UK government, in its laudable effort, focuses on reducing the emissions of CO2 from fossil origin, and is not limiting its effort to the purchase of carbon offsets. The planet will be greatful.
In one of my previous posts, I referred to the WWF report "The potential global CO2 reductions from ICT use". Last week I had the opportunity to talk to one of my colleagues who collaborated with the WWF in this report, and we started a very interesting discussion on the use of IT to reduce companies' effect on the environment.
IT consumes 2% of the world energy, and although it is important to reduce that one, there are the other 98% and according to the report, 37% comes directly or indirectly from the industry. Our topic of discussion turned around how we could use IT to help reduce this amount. There are three clear areas that we came up with, first, the manufacturing process itself, second transportation and third the use and recycling of the product.
I remembered a conversation a couple years ago where somebody told me a CPU chip would go two or three times around the world prior to being delivered as part of a computer at your doorstep. Frankly, is that really needed? Could we use simulation software to optimize the manufacturing process, ensuring that, while maintaining the lowest possible cost, we can reduce the CO2 emissions.
Many of our factories are automated today, and they use MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) to understand and optimize their operations. But those systems do not take environmental concerns into account as they exist today. This is another area we should work on.
As part of research for a greener IT, HPLabs has focused on effective cooling methods for computers and racks. In doing so, they managed to reduce the energy usage by up to 40%. Now, many manufacturing processes require to be cooled. Could some of the approaches developed by HPLabs being used for those processes? Although there is no clear answer today, it's worth asking the question and looking at potential opportunities for piloting. Now, you may argue this has little to do with IT directly, and you are right. However, if it helps, that's the most important isn't it.
At HP we are using a design for the environment (DFE) approach in product development, identifying the actual implications of the product under development to the environment. Simulations during the process allow us to anticipate future consumption and other key data items. Here again, IT can help understand what is required to develop a loc carbon product.
I realize I have only scratched the surface here, but am looking at your inputs and ideas. This subject will be core and center in conversations between manufacturers in the near future, so let's prepare ourselves.
Two weeks ago at the green Supply Chain conference in London, Carbon Footprint was at the center of the discussions. And one of the topics referred to extensively was how to calculate carbon footprint. It’s actually a very good question and numerous efforts are being undertaken to find a standard way of doing so. Unfortunately, standards will take time and if some scientists, who predict the absence of ice on the North Pole in September, are correct, we may not have such time available. So, what do we do about it?
One of the speakers was very pragmatic. Regardless of the method used, he said, keep doing the same things; all what counts is that you improve. It really made me think. Are we not too often trying to find the ultimate, scientifically correct, method, rather than getting things going? Occasionally we need a pragmatist to tell us what really matters, isn’t it?
The second topic was how high to go in the Supply Chain. Should we go all the way to the raw material extraction company? And in that case, how do we get people cooperating all along. The above comment about the pragmatist made me think. What if each company calculates its own carbon emissions and how they relate to their products. If we all to that, the carbon footprint from my product is the sum of the carbon footprint from each of the components comprising the product, complemented with the emissions generated to transport and manufacture the product itself. By developing an IT infrastructure that allows the propagation of this information, an easy and pragmatic way of estimating carbon emissions could be found.
On the carbon topic, carbon labeling was discussed. As you may know Tesco in the UK is putting emphasis on adding carbon emissions on the packaging. In the example described, the Carbon Trust was used to calculate the actual emission, but what was interesting, beyond the number, was that printing the number on the package got as side effect that the manufacturer immediately started to look at how they could reduce that number. And the good news is that they already know how to do so.
The WWF just issued a report on how information technology can help reduce carbon emissions. The report titled “The potential global CO2 reductions from ICT use” not only addresses the energy reductions that can be achieved in the use of IT equipment, but also how IT equipment can help reduce energy consumptions from buildings, vehicles and manufacturing facilities through optimizing operations. The goal, reducing emissions by 1 billion tonnes. Let’s hope our industry can help achieve this ambitious objective.
How do you feel about your carbon footprint?