The government's target to make its IT estate carbon neutral from the cradle to the grave is a positive step, but businesses are leading the way in reducing carbon emissions through IT innovation.
The Greening Government IT strategy, launched last month, which the government wants private businesses to follow, is initially recommending policies described as "quick wins", such as turning computers off after work hours. Such measures cost nothing and save money.
Private enterprises, by definition, should already be doing this, especially with energy prices soaring, giving a commercial reason to reduce power consumption. But less than 40% of people questioned in a recent survey by Brocade said they were bothered about the carbon footprint of their employer and only 16% actually tried to buy more environmentally friendly products.
The government's "quick wins" advice is good practice for any organisation, but to really make a dent in the carbon emissions emitted by private sector IT, investments in advanced, energy-efficient technologies are required. These include the introduction of virtualisation technology and thin client computing - and here the government can learn from the private sector.
Independent energy analyst Nigel Hawkins says the higher the price of energy gets, the more businesses will do to improve efficiency. But they have a long way to go to reduce energy use and still grow as businesses, he adds. "They are making some progress, but the reality is that the amount of energy used each year is growing." As a rule of thumb, says Hawkins, the increase in energy use is traditionally two-thirds of economic growth.
The banking and retail sectors can lead by example, with strategies and work in place to replace inefficient technology and use IT to make savings in other areas of the business.
In October last year, Barclays said it was replacing 10,000 PCs with thin clients to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 15,000 tonnes, saving £5.2m at the same time.
In the same month, HSBC said it would continuously save 500kW of power - equivalent to 500 electric fires running simultaneously - in its datacentres by using virtualisation software.
The government will also look at technology to make savings in other areas. This includes video conferencing technology to save people having to go to meetings, which would reduce emissions from travelling by car, or using mobile technology to enable people to work from home. Such measures could have a more resounding impact on carbon emissions.
Mike Yowarth, director of group technology and architecture at Tesco, says that cutting his company's IT carbon footprint by 25% will reduce its total carbon footprint by only 1%. Tesco has committed £100m to reducing its 4.1 million tonne carbon footprint and is applying IT in other parts of its business to reduce overall company emissions by about 20%.
Government CIO John Suffolk says that although this type of development is more complicated, it need not be expensive. "If you talk to the virtualisation suppliers, they say you get a payback within a year."
There is no doubt the government's Greening Government ICT strategy is a positive step. But private businesses need look no further than their peers to see how IT can save money and help them meet their own green targets.