It’s “Action This Day”

Do you think the Nobel Prize for Al Gore will help fight climate change, raising the topic to the top of the political agenda?

Barrington: If we consider the worst implications of climate change as identified by science today, like massive flooding or the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, then the threat of civil unrest and mass migration will surely create significant risks to peace and stability across the globe. Recognizing Al Gore in this way is an indication that these threats should be taken seriously.

What are the scenarios for dealing with global warming? What are some possible measures and goals?

Barrington: My opinion, as someone who has looked at the anticipated impacts of average temperature increases caused by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and not as a scientist, is that we cannot afford an increase of more than a two degrees, which, based on today’s science, suggests stabilizing CO2 at between 400 and 450 ppm by 2050.

To do this, we need to be on an aggressive trajectory now. We need to have the policies in place to accelerate or slow the CO2 stabilization process as science dictates, and we shouldn’t focus on some narrow definition of what economies can afford. What is certain is we cannot afford to deal with a four to six degree increase by 2050, so let’s get real.

When is the time to really start with these efforts?

Barrington: The problem is that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for generations; other “green house” gasses have different life cycles and impact the atmosphere differently. Because of the massive growth of nonrenewable energy consumption, CO2 and methane are the two we should focus on, and as the saying goes, it’s “action this day.” The longer we leave it, the more risk and cost we incur in dealing with it. Our duty is to mitigate climate change today and prepare to adapt should we fail to get it under control.

Do you already perceive climate change and its effects in the UK?

Barrington: The overall impact of global warming will have different effects for all of us, particularly in the increasing severity of weather patterns. The UK hasn’t had a major snowfall or serious cold spell for years – which means that bugs, ticks, or viruses are not killed – and it seems that every month brings a new “since-records-began” weather moment. And those changing weather patterns are leading to rainfall of “monsoon proportions” that our infrastructure cannot cope with.

What is your role as a UK Government advisor, and to what extent does the Government listen to the advice of the task force you belong to?

Barrington: No government exists within a vacuum, and the UK has been very receptive to progressive businesses calling for action, certainty, and support. I don’t individually engage with the UK government, because one voice among so many can be lost, but I have used the opportunities presented by the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change and the Confederation of British Industry’s Climate Change Task Force to meet ministers and discuss what needs to be done.

There was a “Catch-22” situation just a couple of years ago. Governments didn’t act because of fear of a business backlash, and businesses couldn’t invest because of the uncertainty. That has changed now, and we see companies like EDF Energy stating that they will reduce the carbon intensity of the energy they supply by 60 percent by 2020.

What is the responsibility of governments in fighting climate change, and what can or must be done by enterprises and citizens?

Barrington: We all need to work together. Government needs to set the long-term policy and fiscal strategy to ensure that carbon has a price and a cost. Long-term investment decisions by business will follow. Depending on how you apportion emissions, to the power station or the consumer, for example, it would appear that about 50 percent of the carbon footprint is caused by the home, 35 percent by business, and the balance by government decisions. So I want to act as a citizen, an employee, and a voter to drive change. In other words, each one of us has three chances to effect change.

You work as an evangelist for Green IT. Does it take a lot of effort to convince people of its advantages?

Barrington: Green IT is about making better-informed procurement decisions that position IT to deliver cost savings to the bottom line, often in areas not associated with the IT budget, such as energy, real estate, or waste disposal. In conversations I have had with customers, we frequently talk about how IT can support the aspirations of the business from the standpoint of corporate social responsibility and environmental impact.

I find few who do not understand the value in sweating their assets, or improving the brand reputation of their business, or increasing employee retention.

Can you quantify the share of IT in energy consumption and carbon footprint?

Barrington: There is still limited data on this, but by taking data from Gartner, IDC, and others, we can estimate the energy consumed by IT as equivalent to a billion tons of carbon. That equals about two to four percent of global CO2 emissions, and is roughly the same as the airline industry.

In developed nations, especially those with a strong service-based, knowledge economy, that works out to eight to ten percent of national emissions. And current growth in investment in IT suggests that this share will double by 2020, the point at which we need to be cutting 20 percent of global emissions to be on a trajectory to hit a 50 percent reduction by 2050.

Many people in business do not see the multiplier effect that IT has through heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. For example, there are carbon emissions from purifying the water that is used in air conditioning or chilling units.

What can be done to improve the energy balance of IT?

Barrington: In real terms, the desktop causes 80 percent of the environmental footprint of IT. We have to sweat those assets and replace them with ultrathin clients. We must pull the asset register back into the data center where all the resources like disk, memory, and processors can become shared services on the network, delivering real fiscal and environmental benefits and reducing energy consumption.

What are the sustainability issues in computer manufacturing, and how can they be solved?

Barrington: IT manufacturing has an extended supply chain with a lot of different tiers of suppliers. So the issue is how to get transparency and the highest environmental standards throughout such a distributed network. IT also consumes significant quantities of materials, clean water, and energy per unit of production. The industry has come together to create the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct (EICC), which covers labor rights, business ethics, environment, health, and safety. Sun is working with its tier-one suppliers to ensure compliance.

The place to start, however, is good design. A sustainable future calls for us to reduce our materials consumption, increase the level of resource utilization, and recover and reuse more than we do today. It requires us to develop low-carbon technologies and to make value judgments based on sound environmental principles. For example, we have replaced plastics with metal in our system chassis. That reduces our consumption of hydrocarbons while improving the value of recovered systems. We have stopped painting our systems “Sun blue,” reducing our materials use, simplifying recovery, and increasing the value of the metals used.

Apart from manufacturing and shared services, what aspects belong to your concept of Green IT?

Barrington: The way we procure, package, operate, and dispose of IT can improve the direct environmental impacts. But we shouldn’t forget simple things such as ‘”turn it off when not in use” or “print on both sides.” If a system isn’t mission- or business-critical, there’s no need to buy multiple power supplies. A common-sense approach is often the most environmentally sound.

I think that IT could also become greener as one of the main building blocks of a low-carbon, low-impact sustainable future. That can be achieved in many fields: intelligent building design, real-time engine monitoring and tuning, congestion monitoring, and telework. With IT, we can create smart supply chains, or enable new treatments in telemedicine. We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what will be possible when intelligence or the capacity to monitor and optimize anywhere in real time exist. What we need to see is IT focused on the value it brings through services, rather than IT as a model of consumption and obsolescence.

IT stands at a crossroads. When I think of what it has delivered, unlocking and mapping the genome for instance, I’m proud to be part of this industry. However, we have to move to a more sustainable model of computing; legislators and customers across the world will not allow anything less. But as we do, the opportunity to amplify the social, environmental, and economic benefits of participation in the knowledge economy gives me cause for optimism.