What is green IT (green information technology)?
Green IT (green information technology) is the practice of creating and using environmentally sustainable computing resources.
Green IT aims to minimize the negative effects of IT operations on the environment by designing, manufacturing, operating and disposing of servers, PCs and other computer-related products in an environmentally friendly manner. The motives behind green IT practices include reducing the use of hazardous materials, maximizing energy efficiency during a product's lifetime, and promoting the biodegradability of unused and outdated products.
The concept of green IT emerged in 1992 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched Energy Star, a voluntary labeling program that identifies products that offer superior energy efficiency. Organizations and consumers who use IT products with the Energy Star label can save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA later also funded development of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool standard and a companion product registry, which IT buyers can use to find "environmentally preferable" technologies.
Other components of green IT include the redesign of data centers to be more energy-efficient and the adoption of other green computing measures in data centers, as well as green data storage, green networking, and the increased use of virtualization and cloud computing technologies.
Importance of green IT
Green IT is important for several reasons, including the following three:
- Climate change. Enterprise IT emits a lot of greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change. Businesses must track and reduce their emissions as well as various types of toxic electronic waste that pollute the environment. Green IT approaches can be a useful part of broader climate strategies in companies.
- Compliance. Businesses are increasingly under pressure from governments and the public to reduce their environmental impact. Green IT makes more efficient use of resources, reducing waste and emissions and improving recycling rates. This helps businesses comply with government regulations.
- Competitive advantage. Green IT can be a component of environmental, social and governance initiatives in companies, and many now use ESG reporting to disclose green IT practices. Positive ESG performance is attractive to customers, prospective employees and investors. IT organizations often include ESG practices as purchasing criteria when choosing information and communication technology.
Benefits of green IT
Green IT offers the following social, environmental and business benefits:
- Reduced emissions. Decreasing carbon emissions helps improve the environment. To limit global warming, worldwide emissions must be reduced by 7.6% every year to 2030, according to the United Nations.
- Less waste. Reusing and refurbishing IT equipment is a more environmentally friendly -- and potentially cheaper -- option for product acquisition. It's also part of the circular economy, which eliminates waste and improves supply chain resiliency. Circular economy models can also involve servitization, where companies sell products as a service and manage the maintenance and end-of-life processes for customers.
- Extended maintenance periods. Reusable, green IT products allow for longer maintenance cycles and less frequent device replacement.
- Cost savings. Using more energy-efficient technology to reduce energy consumption helps a business reduce its energy bill and carbon footprint.
- Raised awareness. By using green IT methods and reporting on their use, businesses set an example in their industries and foster collaboration with other companies on climate initiatives.
- Improved corporate culture. Green IT demonstrates to employees that they work for an ethical company, which can improve employee morale and retention. Increasing sustainability through the use of green technology also presents opportunities for more efficient ways of working.
- More sustainable product design. Having green IT goals encourages vendors to design environmentally friendly technologies and approaches.
- Improved reputation. Green technology use creates a good public image, improving a company's brand perception.
- Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. Many customers want to do business with socially responsible companies that make sustainability a key part of their strategies.
Challenges of green IT
There are many potential barriers to implementing green IT successfully, including the following:
- Cost. The initial cost of implementing new green technologies and programs can be expensive. Revamping old legacy IT systems can also be costly.
- Cultural pushback. Implementing green IT can require new ways of working, which might meet internal resistance and create issues with customers and suppliers.
- Prioritization. It can be difficult to decide where to start on implementing green IT. At every level, IT uses energy, so it can be hard to pick which systems to address first.
- Conflicting initiatives. In some cases, technology that purportedly reduces emissions can also have a negative environmental impact. Virtualization and artificial intelligence (AI) are examples of technology that can both help and hurt sustainability goals. For instance, AI can provide detailed insight into energy use and other sustainability factors, but AI technology also consumes a lot of energy.
- Emerging fields. Some areas of green tech are relatively new and have few best practices. Development of green software is one of these emerging fields.
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Impact of existing technologies on the environment
Different types of IT hardware negatively affect the environment at various points in their lifecycle:
Data center systems. Organizations commonly seek to use less energy and cut emissions in their data centers as part of green IT efforts. In addition to the IT equipment, data centers have extensive lighting; security; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and power management systems.
Networking equipment. Routers, switches and servers consume energy to store and send information and communications over a network.
Data storage devices. Data can take multiple trips over various networks before it reaches its storage location. Each trip and the storage itself requires energy. Data storage can also be inefficient. For example, isolated data storage repositories sometimes unknowingly duplicate data, creating data storage waste. A significant portion of an organization's data might be redundant, obsolete or trivial, also wasting energy.
End-user devices. Most companies have more end-user devices than other equipment in their on-premises facilities. As a result, desktop computers, laptops, smartphones and other devices can contribute more to carbon emissions than data centers. End-user devices are also disposed of and replaced more frequently than data center equipment.
Chips. Computer chips consume energy, with some consuming excessive amounts. For example, graphics processing units, often used for AI and machine learning workloads, consume up to 10 times as much power as conventional central processing units.
Software. Software affects the environment as well. For example, applications that transmit large amounts of data over a network use significant amounts of energy. Certain features such as loops in software code are less efficient than other programming methods. Reusable code is a green software alternative that generates energy savings.
Artificial intelligence. AI and machine learning are computationally intensive technologies with high carbon footprints.
Cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency mining is resource-intensive. Crypto-assets use a significant portion of global electricity -- on par with the total annual energy use of traditional data centers worldwide and the total energy consumption of some countries.
Technologies that are bad for the environment can also be used to improve sustainability efforts. For example, AI-enabled data center monitoring tools can be used to quantify energy use data and to help reduce overall energy consumption and emissions.
How to reduce environmental impact
There are many ways to reduce the environmental impact of IT assets, including the following:
- Measure direct impact. IT systems are complex, and managing their impact requires accountability, which is only possible with monitoring. Monitoring tools are used to get information on energy use and other sustainability metrics. For example, companies can use smart sensors to track their data center power usage effectiveness (PUE) and greenhouse gas emissions as well as enable a green data center. Cloud providers offer tools to track power use that users can access from dashboards.
- Measure indirect impact. When measuring carbon emissions, companies should consider their entire supply chain, including the eco-friendliness of providers and business partners. IT admins can check vendor and partner sustainability levels through disclosures made in available ESG reporting frameworks, such as CDP, the GRI Standards, RE100 and the upcoming IFRS Sustainability Disclosure Standards. In addition, companies such as Bloomberg, MSCI, S&P and Morningstar's Sustainalytics subsidiary provide tools to measure carbon footprint and other environmental metrics; they also give companies ESG scores based on public reports and other data.
- Set goals. There are several frameworks, standards and regulations that IT organizations can use to optimize their eco-friendly practices. For instance, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol standardizes how organizations report and categorize emissions. The National Institute of Standards and Technology's SP 800-88 Guidelines for Media Sanitization guide companies in proper destruction of data and storage media. The Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact aims to make European data centers climate neutral by 2030. It sets aggressive annual PUE targets for data centers and renewable energy goals. Data center operators and trade associations participate. U.S. data centers partner with the EPA to identify green power products.
- Embrace hybrid and remote work. Working remotely decreases the emissions from commuting to an office and the energy requirements in office facilities.
- Use virtualization. Virtualization saves energy by decreasing the number of physical servers needed.
- Recycle electronic devices. The EPA provides a list of certified electronics recyclers that meet high environmental standards and safely manage used electronics.
- Use power management features. Hard drives, displays, and other components and devices can be set to power down after a certain amount of inactivity to reduce their energy consumption.
- Adopt alternative energy sources. Geothermal cooling as well as wind and hydroelectric power are greener alternatives to traditional fossil fuel energy sources for powering data centers.
- Engage in green design. Products that are optimized for the circular economy and servitization conserve energy, reduce e-waste and have longer life spans.
The future of green IT
Green IT will continue to gain attention as executives, employees, investors, customers and other stakeholders recognize the serious consequences of climate change and understand that environmental sustainability is an important area of investment.
Environmental concerns are becoming increasingly important. The 2022 "Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey" included environmental sustainability as a top 10 priority among respondents for the first time in the annual survey's history. Survey respondents said environmental sustainability and ESG serve as competitive differentiators for companies.
A 2022 report -- "The Role of ESG Programs in IT Decision Making" -- from TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group said ESG and sustainability factors are now IT purchasing criteria in most organizations, to either a significant or modest degree. For instance, a combined 85% of respondents said they regularly pass on potential IT suppliers or had done so at least once due to ESG-related concerns.
In 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a rule that would require publicly traded companies to disclose information about climate-related business risks and their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. And in January 2023, the European Union's Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive came into force, creating new reporting requirements for some 50,000 companies that will take effect starting in 2025. Such regulations will likely generate more interest in adoption of green computing practices as companies update their IT infrastructure to limit emissions and energy usage.
Other environmental regulations are being developed as well, such as the EU's proposed AI Act. It includes environmental sustainability criteria in the assessment of AI systems. However, some critics believe the act doesn't go far enough in addressing the environmental impact of AI and the low-efficiency chipsets it relies on. They also claim that a lack of data surrounding AI, cloud computing and cryptocurrency makes regulation difficult.
Some leaders in the IT sector are taking steps to be greener. For instance, top cloud platform providers AWS, Google and Microsoft have committed to reduce their carbon footprints and provide green cloud offerings:
- AWS has said it will have 100% renewable power by 2025. It also joined the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact alongside Google and Microsoft and is looking to reach net-zero carbon usage throughout its operations by 2040.
- Google's cloud platform has used totally renewable power since 2017. In 2019, the company diverted nearly all its data center operations waste from landfills and intends to have entirely carbon-neutral data centers by 2030. Google also offers its Carbon Sense software suite, which lets users monitor their carbon emissions.
- Microsoft's Azure cloud has been carbon neutral since 2012 and aims for 100% renewable-powered data centers by 2025. The company plans to be carbon negative overall by 2030. By 2050, Microsoft also expects to remove from the environment all the carbon ever created by its energy use.
Mitigating energy consumption in the data center is a significant part of the green IT movement. Use this template to estimate server power consumption per rack.