The direct impacts of ICT come from the creation, use and disposal of ICTs. There are many classifications and types of direct impacts, but commonly the most impactful are the energy consumption of the ICT devices and the toxic elements that go into creating ICT devices and the e-waste that stems from their disposal. Direct impacts are always negative to environmental sustainability and thus it’s essential to minimise direct impacts. To create a net positive situation, the indirect impacts (next section) should outweigh these.
Toxic Elements and E-Waste
To create ICT devices, elements such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and beryllium are all required. These elements require extraction and processing from the Earth which can consume a great deal of energy. Extraction also reduces the stock of these elements which are not infinite on Earth, sometimes underpinning conflicts. Many are also toxic to both humans and the natural environment when not extracted and processed correctly. Indeed, the toxicity of the elements does not reduce after the device has been used, and the end of life phase of a device requires careful processing to either dispose or reuse precious and valuable elements.
ICT equipment typically has a very short product cycle (built in obsolescence) and its disposal contributes to the growing issue of e-waste. Globally about 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year. Despite current laws, such as the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (‘WEEE’) regulations, only 25% of e-waste is recycled and e-waste continues to be illegally exported on the black market to end up in illegal landfill where the toxic metals may cause dangerous pollution and injure human health. Investigations at dump sites in locations such as Pakistan and Ghana have revealed e-waste carrying UK company and government agency tags.
Actions to reduce the impact of e-waste include:
- Extend device lifetimes by avoiding unnecessary upgrade cycles that cannot be justified in cost/benefit or environmental terms;
- re-using (or ‘re-purposing’) technology that has outlived its original function within the business;
- donating unwanted ICT to appropriate charities or non-profit organisations for re-use;
- Demanding and ensuring that contracted waste recyclers have procedures to prevent illegal dumping and/or export of e-waste.
It has been estimated that the ICT sector accounts for 2-4% of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions; a large figure, which is similar to the global airline industries impact. ICT’s main device types can be grouped into three main areas of data centres, networks, and user devices. Software controls all devices and can also be a direct impact.
Data centres and server rooms power the world of computing by providing a backbone of processing power and storage for many of the world’s ICT services. In the UK, data centres account for around a quarter of ICT’s emissions and is already 2-3% of the UK’s total electricity use. Servers, storage devices and networking equipment make up the bulk of a data centre. However, to run these sometimes mammoth operations a vast amount of support equipment is required in the form of power supplies, cooling and backup. A large amount of the energy consumed by data centres is used by these support systems, which is represented by the PUE value of a data centre (commonly around 2.0). The smaller a PUE, the more efficient the energy consumption. Data centres are often complex and involve many stakeholders which often leads to inefficient server operation, meaning wasted energy.
It’s easy to think that small user devices such as laptops, tablets and smart phones don’t impact energy consumption. Although individually relatively low energy consumers, it has been estimated that over 5 billion mobile phones will be in use by 2017. This unimaginable number of devices means that even if all 5 billion were the lowest energy consuming phones, the impact is still vast (not to mention the network and data centre support required).
In many smaller organisations, without a specialist ICT department, it is fairly common for a random collection of computers and other network equipment, wires and boxes to be shoved into a cupboard or a spare room without any planning or thought. Simply rationalising such ‘accidental ICT’ may reduce energy consumption by 30 – 50% in small and mid-size offices.
A 2010 research project revealed that 70% of UK businesses were unaware of how much power their IT uses, even though 56% had set targets for reducing energy use. This has become a problem not only because of pollution, climate change and high energy costs but also because of issues with the capacity of the power supply. Put simply, ever more demand requires ever more power generation.
Simple ‘quick win’ mitigation actions include:
- Minimise hardware replication and maximise centralised hardware services such as printing and specialised devices.
- Ensure hardware has energy saving states and that they are enabled and working.
- Install smart metering to audit key energy consuming devices.
- Seek out the most environmentally-friendly ICT brands, using Eco-labels, such as Energy Star and EPEAT.
Software & Cloud Computing (Direct Impact)
Software controls all hardware and in most cases determines how efficient hardware is. Devices such as smart phones, laptops and tablets use power management software to control the amount of energy they are using. For example, turning the screen brightness down in low light environments or using less of the Central Processing Unit (CPU) when it’s not required. Furthermore, software itself can be developed to be efficient and use power effectively.
A study found that the latest versions of the Microsoft Windows Operating System performed the same tasks more efficiently on the same device, making the case for upgrading software over hardware more relevant. Not only is this often cheaper, it can extend a devices lifetime as well.
- Consider upgrading software over hardware to extend devices lifetime, and reduce operating energy costs.
- Audit software running on devices to ensure they are configured to maximise energy efficiency.
Cloud Computing is the delivery of computing services from centralised locations via networks. It encompasses everyday email services to hosting entire organisational data services and the processing of vast amounts of scientific data. Software is at the heart of cloud computing by using a technique of virtualisation to create virtual software servers within a physical server – this has the effect of increasing the efficiency of one device, making it more useful. Data centres are the brains of cloud computing and the substantial energy cost of ‘cloud computing’ is very apparent and growing everyday across the globe.
Because cloud computing operates shared and centralised services, it has the capacity to be a ‘green’ ICT. It has been estimated that cloud computing could be up to 95% more efficient than traditional on-site computing where 1 tonne of greenhouse gas (GHG) created by cloud leads to 20 tonnes abated from customers. It was estimated that if 80% of organisations across 11 countries adopted just three cloud services, savings of over US$2.2 billion (€1.65 billion) in energy bills could occur. Such energy saving and efficiency can have greater environmental impact if achieved by using renewable energy, which is now offered by many cloud service providers.
Actions to take when selecting a ‘Green’ Cloud:
- Research the service provider in reports such as the Greenpeace Clicking Clean report that measured global IT companies’ performance in building a ‘green internet’ and cloud.
- Check if the service provider is ‘Carbon Neutral’ for data centre services.
- Find out the PUE (power usage effectiveness) of the data centre.
- Measure the impact of moving your own services to the cloud through lifecycle assessments (Link to Qingtech?).
Effects of Use and Systemic Impacts
The indirect effects of ICT occur from both using ICT for defined processes and ICTs impacts on other systems or sectors. Indirect effects, unlike direct effects, can be both negative and positive in that they can increase environmental impact, but crucially reduce impact from methods such as replacement or optimisation of processes. Systemic impacts of ICT can come in the form of improving access to knowledge or decoupling the traditional resource use from economic growth.
Software is often at the heart of indirect impacts. It can be used to abate carbon emissions from physical processes such as using tele conferencing instead of traveling by car or air. Cloud computing can be used to host entire organisations on-site server farms using virtualisation techniques to reduce physical servers being used.
 Link: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/research/toxic-tech-not-in-our-backyard-2/