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Harnessing the Power of IT to Drive Sustainability

<p>There's wide hope that world leaders can significantly advance a global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize changes to our climate. With such a commitment and the right technology tools, a clean and prosperous future can be well within our reach.</p>

For the next 10 days, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 (also known as COP15). There is wide hope that by the end of the conference, world leaders can significantly advance a joint global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize changes to our climate.

Today, a growing number of governments and scientists have endorsed a goal of limiting global average temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in 2007, meeting this goal will require a 50 to 85 percent global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To achieve these goals, we must act now. While we have the technologies to address the challenges today, the world needs the right set of policies in place to stimulate public and private markets to make the right investments now to achieve climate and environmental goals.

The scale of those proposed reductions is ambitious. But information technology can help achieve the goal of capping temperature change at 2 degrees. The role and potential of IT has been well documented. For example, a report by The Climate Group found that by 2020, deployment of existing IT applications – ranging from virtual meetings to energy management tools for buildings and homes – could slash global carbon emissions 15 percent, eliminating more carbon emissions annually than are currently released by all sources in the United States.

So the question is how can companies like Microsoft help address environmental challenges. At Microsoft we’re pursuing three paths aimed at a more sustainable future. First, we see software as a tool that can make big strides in improving energy efficiency. One of our primary focuses, of course, begins with the energy efficiency of information technology itself. Windows 7, for example, has the most effective energy conservation features we’ve ever put into Windows; energy efficiency is designed into Windows 7. Additionally, with technologies such as virtualization, we’re able to get more “right-size” servers and provide the right level of capability while reducing energy and improving efficiency.

As an operator of many of the world’s largest datacenters, we also are working to significantly improve energy efficiency and drive significant gains in the number of transactions that can be performed for each unit of energy. For example, new datacenters in Dublin and Chicago are 50 percent more efficient than their predecessors. In Dublin, the 5.4-megawatt datacenter needs no chillers for cooling. Instead it relies on careful placement of its servers and software control so that outside air alone keeps the datacenter working without requiring high-energy traditional air conditioning systems. This enables significant energy savings over traditional cooler-intensive datacenters.

Other areas where we are investing include in our telepresence products. We are seeing many of our customers saving time, money, and carbon through the use of Unified Communications technology. That enables virtual meetings to be conducted with high quality, over great distances, and at incredibly low costs. These are the types of changes in the way society does business that IT is singularly situated to enable. Absent a change in our traditional practices, society will fail to meet the goals that many nations, companies and organizations are setting.

Perhaps nowhere are new technical advances needed more urgently than in our power sources and infrastructure. In order to help transition existing infrastructure and establish a modern energy infrastructure, Microsoft is providing guidance on how society should leverage IT to create a “smart energy ecosystem” that knits together new generating technologies (such as wind and solar) and better matches supply and demand. (The video below details the Microsoft's effort to help address energy and climate challenges.) 

Microsoft is also focusing on accelerating breakthrough solutions to environmental challenges. These breakthroughs will require collaboration amongst the private sector, government and non-government organizations. To this end, we’re partnering with leading scientists and academia to leverage technologies that help us better understand our planet and the impact we have on it.

In one project, Microsoft Research shows how specific groups of trees interact with each other and the environment and whether and how tree species will need to migrate in a warming climate; this is just one example of the types of issues we need to more fully understand as society thinks about adaptation and mitigation strategies. In his paper "Predictive Models of Forest Dynamics,” Microsoft Research scientist Drew Purves, along with Princeton's Stephen Pacala, explore dynamic vegetation models that simulate the reaction of forests to past, present and future climate. Their research shows that a new generation of realistic forest modeling, now within reach, could greatly improve our understanding of how forests work, how tree species respond to deforestation, and how forests impact climate regulation and environmental change.

The value of driving mass awareness to the environmental health and the degradation happening to our water and air is an important focus for our company. We have partnered with the European Environment Agency (EEA) on an initiative called Eye On Earth. Eye On Earth gives all 500 million European Union citizens the opportunity to access information on the quality of both beach and swimming water across 21,000 sites, and the quality of air throughout the EU. If you or a family member have a health issue related to air quality, imagine the power in being able to see the quality of air where you live or where you might be traveling. In this project, we have added a feedback mechanism built into the system which enables citizens to report water or air pollution in real time. That helps gives citizens a stake in environmental quality – and makes governments more accountable.

As a large international corporation, sustainability is embedded into every part of our business. We’re working to drive responsible and sustainable business practices across our entire company. We have set a goal to cut our carbon emissions – for each dollar earned by the company – by at least 30 percent by 2012, compared to 2007 levels. We’ll achieve this goal using software and technology to improve energy use in our buildings and operations, reduce air travel, and increase our use of renewable energy. As a technology company, we believe that our footprint goals will be met by leveraging software and technology. We’ve already cut our waste stream in half on our main campus in Redmond, Wash. We’ve cut over 100 million miles of air travel last year. And our innovative private bus system is helping remove 250,000 employee car miles each week.

Clearly, it won’t be easy putting together the pieces needed to create global sustainability. We face tough challenges. Governments will need to adequately fund basic science research and research into renewable and sustainable low-carbon energy sources. And regulators who oversee energy generation and distribution need to promote real-time pricing policies that open the market for demand-side management.

At Microsoft, we’ve seen the power of broadly accessible computing change the way we live over the last few decades. With a commitment to act and the right technology tools, a clean and prosperous future without the looming threat of climate change is well within our reach.

Rob Bernard is the chief environmental strategist for Microsoft. His article is reprinted with permission. Microsoft sent a delegation of issue and technology experts to COP15 to provide insight on how information technology (IT) can help address global energy and climate challenges. More information on the team’s work is available at

Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Click here for full coverage of COP15 from the and teams, including posts from Copenhagen by Executive Editor Joel Makower and Senior Contributor Marc Gunther, and from dozens of guest contributors from the business world.

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