Exploring Ways to Reduce IT's Environmental Impact

When you think of the phrase "industrial ecology," the latest in information technology is probably not a synonym that comes to mind. But a recent issue of Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE) puts that misconception to the test.

Stemming from the widespread applications of ICT in everything from farming to government, JIE set aside an entire issue to looking at how technology and industrial systems can interact. The entire issue, as well as subsequent related articles, is free to the public; below is a short overview of some of the most noteworthy articles from the issue.

In the introduction to the issue, Eric Masanet and H. Scott Matthews write:

Because of its emphasis on the use of system perspectives, industrial ecology is well suited to analysis of both the benefits and impacts of ICT. As a field that seeks to understand -- and pursue -- sustainable production and consumption, often by examining materials and energy flows at different scales, industrial ecology has produced significant research on the intersection of ICT and the environment. This special issue presents research that uses and speaks to several aspects of the field -- life cycle assessment (LCA), ecodesign, industrial symbiosis, and eco-efficiency.

From that starting-point, one of the articles most interesting from a top-level perspective, written by a number of researchers from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, puts the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from ICT at 1.3 percent of the world's total carbon footprint. ICT is also responsible for 3.9 percent of global energy use.

The chart below, from the article, lays out the different amounts of emissions each area of ICT is responsible for. No one will be surprised to learn that PC operations and data centers are far and away the biggest culprits on both the energy-use and emissions sides of the equation.

Figure 1

Next page: Applying green IT to building energy efficiency