Opinion: Can green IT survive the downturn?

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Opinion: Can green IT survive the downturn?

The need for IT to take a lead role in environmental matters should not be diminished by the recession, writes Pete Foster.

There is a lot of debate as to whether or not there is such a thing as green IT. Much of it is pretty pointless because it never starts with any sort of definition or description.

Green IT is an unfortunate turn of phrase because it refers to many aspects of IT business such as environmentally friendly IT products and services; tools to help companies achieve environmental targets, carbon counting, tracking and trading systems; renewable energy generation and distribution support systems; infrastructure development to reduce carbon emissions; and weather monitoring technology.

The term can cover all these areas and more. In its broadest sense it refers to the opportunities for the IT industry to help us all become more environmentally friendly and in particular to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also encompasses the consequences of not doing enough. The benefit to the industry is that while helping to save the planet, IT companies also have the opportunity to generate business.

The “is-there-isn’t-there” argument usually concerns the view that companies are not adopting green IT, they are just implementing systems that save money or produce efficiency benefits.

Did we expect the corporate world to suddenly become tree huggers? In the real, capitalist world only two factors drive company strategy: money and legislation. The recession underlines this point.

Which is why the only companies truly adopting a green strategy at the moment are brand-based operations and high-profile retailers. These are the businesses that will feel the consequences first –­ at the tills.

Nothing will change. Money and legislation will always be the main reasons for corporate strategy and IT implementation. The difference is that green issues will increasingly impinge on revenues and drive the regulatory environment. As climate change awareness spreads, stakeholders ­ – customers, shareholders and employees ­ – will make more demands on companies that, if not met, will affect the bottom line.

As for legislation, there is now a UK law committing the nation to an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - and Australia is following a similar path, albeit with varying reduction targets.

In any case, much of the debate centres on business opportunities, particularly IT infrastructure. Even at enterprise level there will be far wider opportunities, for example to tune logistics and improve the supply chain, let alone counting, managing and reporting carbon emissions.

Even in the current climate, if green reasons are only 10 per cent of the justification for IT expenditure, it means that 10 per cent of business is for green reasons ­ – not to be sniffed at during a recession. In particular, government investment will be influenced by long-term environmental considerations and the public sector is one area of the IT market that continues to spend.

And don’t forget the infrastructure projects that governments are adopting, following the lead of President Obama’s stimulus plan, as well as the continuing need to support renewable energy and climate change monitoring.

The unprecedented growth we saw in the industry in the lead up to the year 2000 was not for millennium-specific solutions but for early upgrades of IT systems, notably enterprise resource planning applications, that could cope. Green IT is similar. Much of it will be little different to what has gone before, but it will have an identifiable green tinge.

At the moment the main concern is the economy, but when recovery starts and legislation kicks in, industry will have to address the green agenda. Suppliers that best position themselves in the green IT market will reap the benefits. Those who say there is no such thing as green IT will not.

Pete Foster is a director at consultancy The Green IT Report

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