WRITTEN ON July 1st, 2007 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Greener government IT

We had an Ideal Government discussion about public-sector IT and environmental sustainability focussed on four areas:

• Contribution to the science of climate change;
• Monitoring and supporting response to climate change;
• Reducing the direct environmental impact of IT; and
• Using IT to change lifestyles and working patterns.

The planet is under strain with an extraordinary acceleration of environmental change. How much is driven by human behaviour and how much by natural evolution will continue to be debated, but after three IPCC reports and the Stern report the nay-sayers are on the run. We’ve “crossed the bridge”, with a considerable turn-round in public opinion, including corporate sentiment in the US. There’s also a strong self-interest argument for India and China, whose history can be seen as a series of perturbations caused by climate change.

Carbon levels are the highest for 650,000 years. Left unchecked we’ll end up with a very different configuration of land and sea from today. Climate destabilisation will have drastic effects on infrastructure (are reservoirs in the right place? can sewers cope?), biodiversity including micro-organisms, and will cause mass migration from stricken areas. Sea levels will rise dramatically, wet areas will become dry, cold areas hot and vice versa.

We have to understand and accept this, monitor a plethora of variables, reduce emissions and change our behaviour if we are to try to maintain any sort of equilibrium. The UK can’t afford to be smug; we use three times what the planet could sustain compared to the US’s five times. And while we may claim to be responsible for just 2% of carbon outputs that’s because we produce so little. Our consumption is far higher, causing higher emissions in manufacturing countries.

What is the role of IT?

The role of the £17bn public-sector IT community seems to fall into four areas:

1. Understanding the science

The science of understanding climate destabilisation is critically dependent on IT to run climate change models and help experts forecast the evolution of eco-systems.

But IT must be servant and not the master, an enabler and not the solution. When we’re utterly dependent on IT a small disruption has huge effects, such as electricity supply disruptions or fuel shortages. An IT-driven society may be responsive but it is still amazingly vulnerable.

2. Monitoring the effects

It’s hard, even with IT, to downscale central global forecasts to a local level. But it’s increasingly possible with the net to build the models bottom up with local monitoring on a social networking model. It doesn’t need government to be good at this (which is just as well) because it will happen anyway.

3. The carbon footprint of government IT

The issues here include power consumption, standby mode, screen brightness, server farms which can use the power of a small town, thin client versus fat desktop (Sun v Microsoft by another name), disposal of hardware (on which the NAO is shortly to report). We’re not consistent about the role of environmental criteria in procurement models, and don’t for example reflect the true carbon cost of outsourcing or offshoring.

4. Changing lifestyles and working practices

“Ideal” Government is likely to be a smaller number of people working in a rationalised number of sustainable office buildings. It’s a huge organisational land management challenge and effective IT and comms are central to it. Corporate examples include GE and M&S.

So what’s happening? EGU is adding a “green issues” work strand to its Transformational Government policy and will report on this aspect in the next annual review. Defra is the natural “lead” department in this area, and Defra’s Chris Chant the lead CIO. The trade association Intellect promises a new strand of “green IT” work. NAO is on the case, and OGC may be doing something, we’re not quite sure.

Procurement is crucial. The choice is to mandate “green” requirements, or leave room for competitive differentiation. What makes no sense is to say we want “green” ideas and bids then award contracts to the lowest cost provider regardless of green considerations.

The “Ideal Government” community has to get our heads around this, and get on with it. Suppliers need to find their voice. Government needs to lead where it can. We have to break the huge challenge up into manageable parts.

Initial specific suggestions are:

– Include a “price of carbon” in procurement models
– Model the carbon footprint of government IT as a whole
– (including, just for fun, the ID card scheme: database, cards, network traffic, card readers, journeys to interrogation interviews and all the hot air emitted attacking and defending it)
– Map everything, especially infrastructure assets, for when we model climate change effects or adapt to their aftermath
– Create an education programme, perhaps starting just with a “Manual” for greener IT use in government (eg from EGU. OGC or Socitm)
– A greener government IT blog such as this one here to share news, developments and ideas, disseminate good practice and “quick wins”
– a Government Computing “green innovator” award

We said we’d revisit the theme in December. Ends.


2 Responses to “Some thoughts about “greener government IT””

Hamann wrote on July 2nd, 2007 2:48 am :

I absolutely agree, that’s a big problem these days, but I doubt that it could be solved when we have so many countries that are not developed enough to realize that this is a big trouble…

Alex Stobart wrote on July 4th, 2007 12:48 pm :

See this work by local government in response to UK government