|J.CALLENS, M.LARUE, T.LACROIX, T.EDGAR, 26/04/2020|
Because of the pandemic which has compelled everyone to stay safely at home, one thing recently turned out to be more true than ever: we cannot live without our computer. Be it to telework, to follow school lessons online, to entertain everyone or to keep social interactions, our computers always seem to be switched on.
We receive and send dozens of emails, make tons of research on the Internet, and binge watch Netflix without thinking that it can have an environmental impact. Indeed, from the fabrication of a digital device to its destruction at the end of its life, by the way of its transport and use, information technology pollutes and constitutes an environmental issue. That is where Green IT, also called Green Computing, steps in.
Green IT is the study and practice of environmentally sustainable computing. Its story began in the early 1990s. At that time, it was not yet called that way, but that is when computing started to really explode and thus consequently led to an increase in the need of materials, electricity and ventilation to cool down the servers. We can really speak about Green IT starting from 2007 because that is when the first structured approaches were launched by large private and public companies. As of that year, initiatives and projects began to multiply to try to improve on the matter.
In this article, we wanted to display in more detail the main consequences of computing, explore a few solutions and alternatives which attempt to deal with the problem, and finally ask ourselves one important question: is it possible to make responsible digital coexist with our current consumption model?
Who could have known that computing polluted so much?
Technologies have shifted our world, changed the skill sets needed in many areas, replaced jobs by computer-controlled system, introduced more and more automated decisions etc. But as consequences of this continued industrialization, we are witnessing serious questions relating to the computing. We can classify them in three major negative impacts.
- Waste pollution
According to the IOP, the amount of worldwide e-waste is expected to exceed 50 million tons by 2020, with an annual growth between 4% and 5%. Only up 20% of this waste is currently recycled (UN Environment Program Report, Jan 2020) the rest goes to landfills or incinerators.
To make matters worse, many components of computing devices are quite toxic and need to be taken care of carefully. This is true of older computers which can include chromium’s, mercury and more. In most developed countries, computing devices are categorized as hazardous, so they have to be handled appropriately, but unfortunately, large amounts of waste are often shipped to countries which have much lower environmental standards. According to the EEA, the European Union exports up to 150,000 tons of waste per month outside Europe for recycling. Some of are left in giant open landfills. Here, wastes from devices could leach chemicals into the soil and groundwater. But that’s not the only point about computing pollution…
- Soaring energy consumption
When we think about global warming, the main sources that come to mind are heavy industries, petroleum and transportation. Seldom do we figure out the impact of computing. We even often perceive it as an alternative to reduce pollution. But recent Journal of Cleaner Production study conveys the surprising contribution of computing to the global footprint, it has grown from 1% in 2007 to 3,5% this year. Fifty percent more than the transportation sector!
Even worse, this data seems to be on an unstoppable steady growth and should pass 15% in 2040, dragged by the soaring activities of smartphones and data centers. Nowadays 11% of computing damage is due to our daily smartphone use and 2/3 by Data Centers activities. And the growth in smartphones and data centers are not unrelated. Indeed, the expansion in telecommunications has largely driven the pace for data centers. Still according to this study, data centers produce more carbon footprint than the whole of Canada! Behind every message and server response is hidden a huge energy-consuming data center.
All of this is invisible, located sometimes thousands of miles away… and this depraved consumption should not stop as internet users are booming all around the world (7% of penetration in 2000, more than 50% nowadays, WTO).
- Depletion of natural resources
Maybe depletion is the easy way to see the real impact of computing. It costs a lot of energy to produce devices and it costs a lot more to extract elements to do it. As companies encourage people to change their equipment every two years and because of new demand, production has skyrocketed.
“GAFAM want to give themselves a greener image than what they truly are, their business model is all about mass consumption of IT resources”
Laurent Marot, University Bretagne Sud – cyber defense dept.
Indeed, electronic devices are built using some of the most common resources available in our planet, such as sand and some of the rarest, like gold and nickel. The Rare-earth elements, usually found in China or Africa, need to be extracted from the ground, not always following the most ecological or environmentally respectful methods, especially in the poorest countries that do not have access to affordable and efficient mining and processing equipment. In these places, extremely dangerous chemicals are used, such as mercury in order to extract some materials.
Is there a solution to every problem?
Fortunately, these issues may be improved with good behaviors. We can act in many different ways.
- Making companies more aware of the environmental issue
For Thomas Mesplede, big corporations are aware of the issue and already act in order to improve the situation. They have Green IT and CSR managers who deal with this. The issue is more about smaller companies, which occupy about 99% of the work sphere in the USA, according to a Statistics of Income made by IRS. They are not really aware of the pollution caused by traditional computing, so communicating this information to them is very important.
A solution could thus be to train companies to a more sustainable way of working. They could try to better understand the issues and solutions thanks to green certifications. The Green IT community offers certifications to train managers to improve their way of acting. The goal is to show them key concepts and solutions so that they could incorporate them in their business. The future trainings being already full is proof that managers are willing to change their approach.
“More and more companies are asking us how they can be more ecologically responsible, which means we need to support and advise them”
T. Mesplede, GIT Alliance Representative
- Changing and finding alternatives to our way of consuming
Our current economic model is based on consumption. Take the example of a telephone operator, their goal is to sell more phones. This is not sustainable! We have to change our economic model. According to T.Mesplede, an alternative model exists but has to be developed. In fact, instead of buying a new computing equipment, we should buy the use of it, which is quite different. Think about the access for the internet from home: we rent a Wi-Fi box and when we do not need it anymore, we give it back. This philosophy is far better for the environment, these equipments are built in a more sustainable way so that they last longer. If this kind of economic model could spread in all companies, it could be a huge environmental progress.
“For individuals, mobile phones have a lifespan of about 1 to 2 years, for computers it’s about 3 to 4 years… And it’s the same for companies!”
Another alternative would be to extend the lifespan of computing machines. Because technological equipment is changed too often, this is a huge issue. Many of the machines that are changed are still working, but they may not be as efficient as they were. We should try to fix them before getting rid of them. To extend their lifespan, the advice should be not to continuously update the machines because it slows them down.
- Recycling computing waste
A company could recycle its wastes by employing professionals that could take care of the old machines while respecting environmental norms.
Also, a government can help to regulate the management of waste. However, in order to be more effective, governments could work together. This is the case in Europe: Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is growing faster so countries decided to try to regulate this issue together. To address these problems two pieces of legislation have been put in place: The Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE Directive) and the Directive on the Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS Directive). Thanks to these regulations, each country created a sector to recycle and manage electronic waste.
Green IT in our society: feasible or fantasy?
As we all know, we live in a society in which mass and overconsumption has become normality. Can we truly be led to believe that a greener, more ecological IT can be applied to our current way of life, in companies as much as for the general public?
It’s clear to see that Thomas Mesplede seems rather optimistic about the future of the IT world. It’s also apparent that companies such as Green IT are doing a wonderful job in raising awareness of companies, as well as the general public, who are becoming more and more well informed about the environmental impacts of digital technologies. Some companies are also taking drastic measures in order to be as green as possible. OVH is a perfect example. Indeed, the leading website host in France was created over 10 years ago with the idea that they would be as neutral as possible when it comes to their impact on the environment. To achieve this, they use proprietary water-cooling technology for all their servers, therefore reducing the use of air conditioning, that is hugely overused in order to cool most date centers around the globe.
However, this is far from being the case for a huge proportion of companies in the world. The number one concern of almost all companies is profitability, which is often achieved by being quite the opposite of “green”. Phone companies, as mentioned previously, try to sell us a new phone as often as possible, once every one or two year on average, even though our current phone is most often fully functional. Laurent Marot, Cyber defense teacher at ENSIBS engineering school, explains that there is also a knock-on effect on the general public, that also feels the need to change phones as often as possible, in order to be fashionable and well connected, and with the younger generations being more and more connected, it’s difficult to imagine any change in this trend.
“I don’t think it will be possible to disconnect young adults that have grown up with Netflix. It’s a bit of a schizophrenic generation.”
Furthermore, distracting ourselves has become a true necessity, and nowadays, these distractions are often provided thanks to digital technologies such as social media or streaming services. All these distractions are extremely pollutant, and once again, it’s hard to imagine the general public limiting it’s needs and desires. This all makes it difficult not to be pessimistic about the future, as is Mr. Marot. He also explains that cyber defense, which is now a necessity for all companies, collides with the matter of a more sustainable IT. Indeed, the 3 axes of IT security (availability, confidentiality and integrity) all require high processing time, and therefore high energy consumption, there’s no way around it. He also goes on to add that the students today are not taught about the environmental impacts of the IT world, which seems totally ludicrous as these students will be the engineers of tomorrow.
It seems fair to say then, that in spite of many efforts being made to raise awareness and find alternative solutions and alternatives to our current model of society, there is still a lot to be done if we are to hope to one day be able to efficiently integrate Green IT solutions in our current society model.
Through the different facets of digital that we have addressed in this article, we can now understand the complexity of the subject. Green IT, although necessary and in line with the very current challenge of sustainable development, is clearly still not the priority of the greatest number. However, far from wanting to be pessimistic, it is important to highlight the efforts that have already been made in this area. Awareness has already arisen for some, and it is now a priority to promote it among individuals and professionals so that everyone realizes the importance of responsible digital technology.
- greenit.fr – https://www.greenit.fr/formations/
- Alliancegreenit.org – https://us.ovhcloud.com/about/company/green-tech
- IOP 2020 Threat to Human Health, Jan 2020