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Why ICT is as vital to climate change as COP17


Colin Curtis | Director of Sustainability | Dimension Data

It is a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that talking at length about climate change neither makes you an instant hit at parties, nor a resounding success in business. However, on the run up to the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban – or “COP17” – I felt it was a good time to tackle the proverbial elephant in the room and talk about why businesses and IT departments need to play their part in reducing carbon emissions.

COP17 is of critical importance to all of us. This is a conference where world leaders debate how to avert potentially catastrophic changes to the planet on which we live, run our businesses, and bring up our families. It doesn’t get any more important than this. A lot of weight rests on the shoulders of COP17, as the (rightly) infamous COP15 conference in Copenhagen singularly failed to produce any outcomes worth talking about, and last year’s COP16 conference in Cancun deferred all the important decisions to this year. Not only that, but 2012 is the year in which the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires – the only legally binding agreement in place among industrialised countries.

Current global emissions of greenhouse gases each year are equivalent to about 48 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (48GtCO2e). Scientists agree that we need to get this down to about 44Gt a year to restrict global warming to within the two degree boundary that most believe prevents significant change to our climate system. If nothing changes, our emissions are on course to rise to about 56Gt a year – that is, 12Gt a year above where they should be.

Current pledges from countries are not enough to meet these targets, so there will need to be a lot of tough talk at COP17 to agree to some serious actions, such as a next phase to the Kyoto Protocol. Should businesses leave this to the politicians to tough it out, and wait for the outcome? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is a definitive ‘no’; however the course of action may be far easier and more effective than you might think

A recent United Nations report, Bridging the Emissions Gap, concluded that the targets can be relatively easily achieved if businesses make relatively simple changes. What’s even better is that most of these changes either cost nothing or will save money! Smart and successful businesses have already realised that a strong focus on sustainability is not only good for the planet, but absolutely fantastic for the bottom line too (see our previous blog post: Sustainability: What top performing companies have in common).

Many of the best sustainability programs have been driven by passionate individuals who believed that they should do nothing more complicated than try and be less wasteful in their own departments. In many cases, the changes put in place have been within IT departments, and they have saved a great amount of carbon and money.

I am incredibly proud of our own IT department. In 2010 financial year, Dimension Data reduced our carbon footprint by 43%, and a large amount of this was due to the virtualisation of more than 500 servers. They also set about getting us to use more video and unified communications to help us meet our target of reducing each employee’s travel related carbon by 10% over 5 years. Their efforts mean that, to date, we have achieved a simply staggering 59% reduction in emissions. Although this is great for the environment, it’s particularly good news for our CFO and COO who were delighted with the tremendous amount we saved in energy bills, air fares, and time – so we could be with our clients instead of waiting around in airport lounges!

ICT Projects such as virtualising your data centre, driving the adoption of video, managing your electronic waste, creating Smart Buildings not only have a great ROI, but projections show that these have the potential to save up to 7.8Gt of carbon by 2020. That’s potentially 1.8Gt more carbon saved than the world leaders managed to commit to at COP15 and COP16!

So is COP17 still important? It’s absolutely vital – the legislation that needs to come out of the conference is essential to help drive many of the changes we need. However, the attitude of businesses is what will ultimately determine whether we achieve our targets for climate change, and IT departments have a tremendous part to play in this by putting sustainable solutions in place. Not only do these stand to deliver financial savings that make you a business hero, letting people know that you’re potentially doing more to save the planet than the United Nations may make you a hit at parties after all!