back to article Canadian prof: Green IT is a waste of time

A prominent Canadian academic in the tech-policy field has said that "Green IT" initiatives don't work. "Most of the negative environmental impacts [of IT] occur in the form of completely unintended, second and third order effects," says Professor Richard Hawkins of Calgary Uni. "These 'rebound' effects may not be mitigated by …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    It *is* easy being green, as long as you do *something*

    Extrapolating: Don't bother to make energy generation greener, because it won't reduce the use of energy consumption of mobile devices - don't bother to reduce the use of energy in you mobile devices, because it won't reduce the use of energy in mobility. Don't bother to reduce mobility, because that hurts the economy and/or would increase the use of energy in desktop computing. Don't bother to reduce the energy consumed by desktop computing because you should be making energy generation easier.

    Sheesh! In other words, our only choice according to this guy is to carry on as normal and hide when the whole world goes tits up.

    Or there is an alternative: Reduce your energy consumption however you can and where ever you can. Use a webcam and skype instead of taking a flight to a meeting, switch all your Atom powered devices to use ARM's (and push companies to start putting ARM's in devices instead of Atoms), and try walking or cycling where your journey is less than 5 miles (or more!). I did - my family's footprint is now *lower* than the guy that makes "it's not easy being green" (and I don't have any solar/wind electricity/heat generators). It *is* easy being green!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Cutting x amount of CO2 emissions won't save the world... lets not try at all.

    Rather a pessimistic outlook isn't it? Any improvement is an improvement. Yes, cutting the direct CO2 emissions due to using e.g. an inefficient moby charger (hence using more electricity => more CO2) isn't going to save the planet in a jiffy, but it's better than us sitting on our arses with lights on full blast waiting for someone else to sort it.

    Plus after my last electricity bill I'm motivated to minimise my electricity usage almost entirely by skintness - bloody scottish power. Saving a polar bear is simply a heartwarming extra (and since my heating is electric, it's a welcome extra!)

  3. Dr Who

    He's right

    I'm just back from my third week's skiing in the Alps this year. Without the mobile, the netbook and the interweb on the move I would have been lucky to get one. Mobile tech is enabling me to have a much bigger carbon footprint and to create a far bigger disturbance to the hibernating furry animals of the high alps.

    Thanks Reg - for spoiling three of the best week's skiing I've had in years. Now I'm just on a huge guilt trip.

  4. mark Silver badge

    yes and no

    He's spot on that mobility is the problem , but most of IT helps reduce it.

    email prevents physical mail being moved

    video conferencing prevents peole having to move, etc

    I dont think it really follows that peopledrive about *because* they have a mobile phone??

    I think I'll invent a car with no wheels, that'll solve climate change .

    btw, Climate change is a feelgood hoax made up because they're too scared to tell us the Oil is running out :)

  5. martinX
    Jobs Halo

    Listen up, drones.

    GOOD CITIZENS OF EARTH. Stay in your homes and lead cold, quiet lives. THANKYOU FOR LISTENING. CANADA OUT.

    (Angelic Steve because I'm using Safari 4 Beta)

  6. Paul Clark
    Thumb Down

    Comms saves transport

    Huh? I spend one or two hours a day chatting on Skype with colleagues in Hong Kong from sunny (sometimes) Cornwall. Ten years ago I would be hopping back and forth on a plane.

    We deliver all our products electronically; twenty years ago we would at minimum be burning and shipping CDs and using couriers all the time.

    Today I'm logged into our company e-mail and development systems from home which has saved me a 16 mile round trip.

    Perhaps the Professor should think about 21st century technology instead of 20th...

  7. Anonymous Coward

    false conclusion

    Boffin says "We didn't adopt the mobile phone so we could drive and talk on the phone, we adopted it because we were already driving so much."

    You concluded: " If you didn't have that smartphone or UMPC you'd stay in the office and burn less transport fuel"

    Your conclusion is false, and also not what the boffin was implying.

    The correct conclusion is that, compared to transport, green IT is small beer.

  8. Chris Holt

    The real question is what amount of mobility is sustainable?

    absolutely! same goes for over-population. A political hot potato that we aren't allowed to talk about. anyone for people-clubbing?

  9. Max

    What a terrible attitude

    If you are a professor and go about thinking "lets not bother fixing A because B, C, and D are still broken anyway", what does that tell us?

    The reality is that IT, Cars, Planes and just about every other bit of technology needs to start becoming much more energy efficient. And this efficiency is needed now.

    Additionally, we are at a time when the economy could use a boost from new innovation and energy efficient design. I wouldn't call the opportunity a win-win, because we are still losing the climate battle, but it is an opportunity that must be seized immediately.

    Saying it is a waste of time to fix one is not only silly, its dangerous.

  10. al

    All english, no numbers.

    One aspect of Green IT is that it brings down data centre costs significantly. From a million dollar per annum bill to half a million or about. So Green IT definitely makes business sense.

    Green IT is also about less toxic waste. Without a doubt, IT is one of the major contributers to toxicity in terms of production plants, batteries, monitors/displays and ink.

    Also, IT is just a 0-40 year old beast with a penetration to about 30% of world population. If it is tamed now - it'll stay cuter for a longer while. Cellphones are just 20 years old and it's penetration is only 15%. So once cellphones have 70-80% penetration; (5 billion phones) - having a green phone with a green charger would matter.

    I think this proffies is just trying to act smart by blabbering against conventional wisdom.

    Personally, I am willing to believe that Global Warming is a farce. But let's say if for the moment we assume that it's not a farce (al gore RIP) - Green IT makes sense. Thumbs down to proffie.

    Paris, coz she was very green the first time I downloaded her.

  11. Steve
    Thumb Down

    sounds a bit like bullocks

    Despite his point about the mobile phone (which may or may not be correct) it is still sensible to consider the actual environmental footprint of the phone itself.

    If every phone used 100 tons of crude to produce, then that would still be a significant contribution to the overall pollution, even though it may have 2nd and 3rd order effects which can't be reduced by not using 100 tons of crude in the first place.

    And although it's true that a mobile doesn't use 100 tones of crude to produce, it does consume resource, it does use non replaceable resources and it does have an impact which can be reduced. And there are 100's millions of these devices produce, so the overall impact of production is still large.

    I think he's right that 2nd and 3rd order effects exist, although I'm not sure how a mobile makes us travel more, maybe we should strive to make devices that have the 2nd order effect of reducing travel (ie making home working a reality instead of an exception to the norm). Even so, his reasoning is faulty and he doesn't prove the green initiatives are a waste of time, only that they won't solve the whole problem.

  12. Andrew Culpeck
    Thumb Down

    Not convinced

    OK if I had no modile phone and no credit card I would not be able to park a motobike in Westminster or a car for that mater so he has a point.

    If we all went back to living, shoping and working near where we live then this would cut our consumption of fule.

    Mabe this is a case for vertical living where you comute by lift?

    Ultamatly what we need is be able to do what we do without burning fule?

    Solar powerd compressed air generators anyone? The compressed air providing the fule for vehicals and electric generation.

    I have seen 3 pices of thec. that would make this possible.

    1. A coating for windows that traps some frequencies of light in a window pain and passes it to the edge of the window for collection by Photo volvaic cells.

    2. Cheap ink based photovoltaic cells. This looks as though it may be close to being comercial, present economic climat permiting.

    3. A compressed air engin that uses a rotary design (Air car (2of2) on you tube) by Angelo DiPetro.

  13. BlueGreen

    heard it before

    It's been well known for at least a couple of years that business video conferencing can induce people to travel more rather than less, to meet in the flesh the people they've formed online working relationships with. I doubt it'd be different for non-business relationships - more so, in fact.

    But don't worry, expensive oil is coming to stay, I'd guess within 6 to 18 months. Watch the gears of modern life fill with molasses then. It'll not be pretty.

  14. Kevin Whitefoot

    The usual drivel

    Presumably (haven't read the report) green IT means IT equipment that requires less energy to manufacture, use, and dispose of. These things mean that the total impact of human activities is less than it would be if the device were less 'green'. It's about time that policy makers and their advisers stopped regarding all human activities as invariably bad. What we need to do is to reduce the resource cost of doing what we want to do. And, surprise, surprise, this is exactly what science and technology has been doing for us over the last five thousand years. More efficient vehicles allow more people to travel which is what was wanted. Complaining that improvements in efficiency allow people to travel more thereby causing more damage to the planet is beside the point because the increased travel was one of the goals in the first place. Doing it efficiently means that the impact is less than it would otherwise have been. The goal should be to reduce the impact of the things we want to do not to eliminate them and this is what more energy efficient IT, vehicles, and buildings do for us.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Not what he is trying to say

    The conclusion in the title of the article is a little misleading. Green IT CAN be a waste of time.

    I think what he is trying to say is that green (washed or not) IT is not inherently "green". It is what people do with it that matters. So if it is green and people do green things with it then it is not a waste of time. If it is green IT but people still do things that are not "green" then it is a waste of time.

    This is exactly the kind of thing that people who develop public policies need to be mindful of.

    If I can use my cell phone to walk over to my community garden plot before settling down to work in my home office or at the local workgroup office instead of commuting for an hour to work in my car these are the type of choices that also have an effect on how green a technology can be (sorry about the lame example but it is just meant to be illustrative).

  16. Stephen Bungay

    Logic fails....

    The man's logic strikes me as Pythonesque. All wood burns therefore all that burns is wood. All cellular telephones are mobile therefore owning a cellular telephone increases the use of your primary mobility device, the automobile.

    Me thinks this person and his ilk are of the kind that blame the technology for the existance of the automobile, and then blame the automobile for Global Warming. These folks would be up in arms if we all drove electric automobiles powered by fuel-cells fueled by hydrogen. They would find a way to make it look bad I'm sure. Probably try to start a campaign to save water...oh.. wait. Anyway...

    Car haters are an illogical bunch. As an example of how the automobile has HELPED humanity, Robert Fogel once related what conditions were like in the 1890's in New York City. "We complain a lot about air pollution today, but there were 200,000 horses in New York City, at the beginning of the 20th century defecating everywhere. And when you walked around in New York City, you were breathing pulverized horse manure, a much worse pollutant, than the exhausts of automobiles. Indeed in the United States, the automobile was considered the solution to the horse problem because pulverized horse manure carried a lot of deadly pathogens. "

    That really paints a pretty picture of "the good-old-days" doesn't it? I'd rather work towards a technological solution, harvest energy, store it, use it; learning how to do this is the challenge. This man and those that are like-minded will have a difficult time of it when the challenge is met.

  17. tuna

    Green Thievery

    I'm all for conservation and efficiency. I go out of my way to recycle b/c my condo association cannot sacrifice 2 guest parking spots to put in a green can, keep my thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer, hot water tank down to lowest setting, use my dishwasher as a glorified drying rack(single adult, takes me a week+ to produce enough dishes to run it). With that said, let me also say: the "Green *anything*" fad is just another scam. I'll give props to EnergyStar, but the new "green" wave is the same marketing BS we got in the '80s to get us to pay a premium for shittier products. Nothing more than the good 'ol "fear and consumption" tactic to sell more shit we don't need in the first place. If we were really concerned and amped about a solution we'd stop buying that crap from China with the high replacement rates(read: cheap shit for cheap price).

    Stay scared, buy more, we're running out of oil(again, anyone remember the '70s?), the broken banks are the victims, we're all gonna die, better get that $.0001 Price Slash at Wal-Mart.

    Mine's the green jacket without the designer label.

  18. Mike
    Black Helicopters

    zero sum game

    is the point I think he was trying to make. for example, a green(er) datacenter saves you money and has a smaller carbon footprint, but the developing and manufacturing of the "green" tech has a huge carbon footprint. Your new green datacenter is saving you vast amounts of cash, and as a side benefit you can slap the politically correct "green" label on your company, but the power companies now are getting less cash, doing less R&D, employing less workers, who now have to burn trees to stay warm.

    zero sum game. we need to change how the game is played if we want to win.

  19. R Callan

    Green is a catchcry

    that is being overused. Recently here in NZ a well known computer maker has been advertising their airy-fairy laptop as being "The Greener Computer". Why? Because it has a glass and aluminium (mispronounced) case, and it does not contain heavy metals such as mercury. All well and good on the surface because everyone here knows that aluminium is produced with hydro-electricity. Except, which is not commonly known, the production of each mole of Al produces 1.5 moles of CO2 (2.4 tons of CO2/ton of Al). The production also produces quite a lot of fluorides and fluorine which end up in the air, the reason for those very tall stacks. Trace amounts of heavy metals such as lead and mercury are also an unwanted byproduct. Trace amounts does not sound too bad until the sheer quantity of production is considered, and then it becomes a large absolute amount.

    Aluminium, although recycleable which the adverts emphasise, is not infinitely so. Up to 15% of the input to a recycling plant is lost as aluminium oxide dross.

    Glass is not so bad as it is recyclable almost infinitely and requires a lot less energy to make it formable. However, how is the glass removed from the Al case? I would suggest that no recycling plant would accept such a case as they only want aluminium or glass, making the whole thing non-recyclable.

    It can thus be seen that the greenness can be disputed by a simple internet search, but this requires that people take claims with a grain of salt which rarely happens, because "green" is a catchcry that everyone must agree with or be considered anti-planet.

  20. Andy Christ

    @R Callan

    I am completely in your camp up to the life cycle of those aluminum lappies. That company whose name must not be spoken takes back its own products, so they can be disassembled en mass to separate out the components. Unfortunately it is basically just the case and glass which are recyclable; no claim has ever been made that the included electronics, the bulk of the product, will be reused.

    As to the nutty professor, I think the majority of posters here got it right, tech allows us to conserve rather than waste. Having a mobile allows me to ride my bike to the far ends of the earth without fearing the results of a break down. And the solar charger on my bike rack keeps both my mobile and laptop running all day.

    Mines the one without any keys in the pocket.

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