Climate change debate: IT must choose its side

There's a big fight going on, right now. You may not see it, because it's largely being fought behind closed doors. And, you may not feel you're part...

There's a big fight going on, right now. You may not see it, because it's largely being fought behind closed doors. And, you may not feel you're part of it, because it's being fought by men in suits and in the corridors of power. But it's a fight we all have a massive stake in, and yet the IT sector still hasn't chosen which side it will be on, writes Tom Dowdall, co-ordinator of Greenpeace's Greener Electronics campaign

While governments are attempting to tackle climate change, polluting industries - such as coal, power and steel - are lobbying hard to make sure they can keep on polluting. But the IT industry - who could be huge winners in the strong global climate change deal that needs to be agreed when governments meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, later this year, are strangely silent.

IT products and services have already transformed the way many of us live, work and play in the last 20 years. IT is bold and innovative, and has already swept away inefficient practices and industries.

Now, we are facing the massive challenge of preventing catastrophic climate change. To achieve this, we also need to sweep away the inefficient and polluting ways of generating, distributing and using energy that were developed in the last century, and make way for cleaner, efficient solutions. Technology-based solutions will be vital to this fight.

The May 2008 SMART 2020 report outlined in detail just how IT solutions can help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2020. In November 2008, Gartner and WWF showed that many leading IT companies have been slow to realise this opportunity, however. If the IT sector is to deliver these emissions reductions - and it has just eleven years in which to do so - then companies need to be showing how their solutions can achieve this. They need to be showing the bold leadership that will ensure that government regulations deliver a high-carbon price that will drive demand for solutions. And, to ensure their solutions and influence are credible, IT companies must show how they are cutting their own emissions. This is why Greenpeace launched the Cool IT Challenge to the industry.

Sadly, the first assessments of the claims of the biggest tech firms are, in a word, disappointing. While IBM and Fujitsu offer a wide range of solutions and are able to provide some evidence of accounting for the overall impact of their solutions on emissions (although they both still have much work to do in these respects), other leading names such as HP and Cisco does not yet have any large public case studies showing how its solutions reduce absolute emissions.

Only Sun Microsystems shows clear support and active advocacy for the level of global emissions reductions the science says we need.

Companies like IBM are hiding behind the excuse that climate targets and policy are the responsibility of governments. While this is ultimately true, big names such as IBM, Microsoft, Intel and Nokia can, and do, exert a massive amount of influence over government policy, both in their own home countries and abroad.

No time to hide

Many companies hide behind membership of corporate carbon clubs that support only vague statements about regulation of carbon emissions. Even many of the most-polluting companies are backing these vague statements.

Any company not taking a bold stance on the levels of cuts that climate science says we need now is allowing these polluting companies to put their own short-term profits above our future.

Facing up to tackling the climate crisis requires bold leadership from all sectors of society, including business. Considering IT leaders stand to gain handsomely from a low-carbon economy it's scandalous that not one is yet prepared to show real climate leadership.

Fortune favours the bold

Taking a bold stance in the high stakes battle over our global climate isn't easy. It requires IT companies to confront some of their biggest customers in high-carbon industries. Any reservations companies may have about lobbying being perceived as only in their own interest must be cast aside. Politicians are under huge and open pressure from coal, car and power companies not to limit carbon emissions. Politicians need to hear clearly from IT leaders that the solutions exist and emissions can be reduced while generating jobs and profits.

Clearly, IT leaders need some serious pressure to get off the sidelines and join in a battle where the stakes couldn't be higher. And that's where every single one of us comes in: if we work in IT, if we use IT products or services, then we all have the power needed to exert this pressure for change.

So Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer, John Chambers, Howard Stringer and Sam Palmisano, we are looking to you and your fellow CEOs to show real climate leadership, and to show it now. In this case, what is good for a healthy planet is also good for future IT jobs and healthy IT profits.

CEOs must join the climate change battle and stop the global climate debate being an utterly one-sided heavyweight fight where it's the planet that ends up getting pummelled.

I know which side I'm cheering for. The question is, do you?

Greenpeace's Greener Electronics campaign >>

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