Bell Labs, the research house that invented the transistor, believes it is possible for organisations to cut the energy used for information processing and networking by a factor of 1,000.
The lab has formed a consortium to seek ways to do that.
The Green Touch consortium aims to have its reference architecture - a model of technologies and techniques that IT suppliers and users can apply to lower the energy consumption of their products and services - within five years.
Hardware makers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard are likely to introduce innovations from Green Touch and other initiatives as soon as possible for competitive reasons, says Kevin O'Donovan, who heads chip maker Intel's green programme in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
But Bell Lab's timetable suggests it will take several years for datacentres and network operators to benefit directly from Green Touch.
CIOs are likely to face more immediate pressure to apply IT and network technology to other areas of the business to save energy. According to researchers at Bell Labs, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and other centres, this is where firms will get the biggest bang for their buck.
If organisations continue to use IT and communications technologies at their current rate, CO2 emissions will increase by 72% from 0.83GtCO2e (gigatons of equivalent CO2 emissions) in 2007 to 1.43GtCO2e in 2020, according to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).
But investing in more IT to manage energy use would cut overall CO2 emissions by 15% or 7.8GtCO2e, says GeSI, an organisation formed by the world's largest telecommunications and computer equipment makers and network operators in 2001 to further sustainable development in the IT sector.
It will take sometime to achieve these emission cuts. But there will be some 15 billion devices connected to networks within five years, according to analyst firm IDC. This could double CO2 emissions.
The challenge for CIOs will be to balance the acquisition of low-energy information processing with the business's other priorities.
Bell Labs says the generation and distribution of electricity accounts for about one quarter of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. IT could be making power generation and delivery more efficient. Techniques such as demand smoothing and time-of-day pricing delivered through smart grids and smart meters would cut fuel costs and CO2 emissions, says Gee Rittenhouse, head of research at Bell Labs.
Transport is the next-biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Organisations can eliminate the need for much travel through video conferencing, telepresence and web-based seminars. Intelligent public transport systems, traffic flow management and parking optimisation could cut emissions further.
Automated energy management systems that optimise heating and cooling systems for each occupant in a building, or switch off PCs and monitors when users are absent, are already entering the market.
The biggest medium-term challenge for CIOs is likely to be in helping firms to redesign jobs and workflows to take more advantage of IT. Organisations can start by asking whether they need an office.
Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, suggests CIOs work with their colleagues in human resources and marketing to optimise their use of technology.
Firms are likely to have to give up some of their traditional attitudes to work, she says. "'Present-ism' is dying. The number of hours a person spends at their desk is no indicator of their output."
CIOs can offer their employers systems that measure precisely employees' work-related activities as well as customers' behaviour. And with social networking technology becoming pervasive, they can offer a more intimate and emotional engagement with the firm at a distance, while reducing energy consumption.
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