Climate Change: How Tech Can Help

Two major climate change reports warn how technology is helping change the world for the worst. But can it help too?

Technology has been the catalyst that has speeded up the fatal reaction that is causing climate change. It accelerates our galloping consumption, helping us to belch more CO² into the atmosphere, which is ultimately creating a hostile set of climate conditions that will cause food, water and land shortages and will have catastrophic effects. But catalysts can also slow down reactions. So can technology also be our saviour?

The world is not ready for the extreme weather and the disappearance of habitable territory on which we can live, according to Climate Change 2014 the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). At the same time (April 2014), a Greenpeace report — Clicking Clean – explores the IT industry’s ability to avert the crisis.

First the bad news. The latest UN report by the IPCC, compiled by 772 scientists, warns that world leaders have only a few years left to avoid catastrophic global warming. The only way to stop temperatures shifting and the sea from rising is to slash carbon emissions, before they change human life and natural ecosystems forever.

"Observed impacts of climate change are widespread and consequential," says the report. Disease is at high risk of spreading across Africa, property and lives are being lost to wildfires in North America and food is declining in quality and quantity in South America.

And it’s going to get worse, according to Kelly Levin, a scientist who studies climate change impacts at the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. “Today's choices will significantly affect the risks that climate change will pose for the rest of the century," says Levin.

Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the report an "SOS to the world".

If the warming were to go beyond 6-7 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4 degrees Celsius), as predicted by some climate models, "we would see extensive changes in agriculture," adds Levin.

The report says all variations of weather — such as heavy rainfall, warm spells and heat events, drought, intense storm surges and associated sea-level rise – are attributable to carbon emissions created by industry, which in turn is automated by IT.

To many, the existence, cause and effects of climate change are still moot points. But there does seem to be a consensus within one of the biggest consumers of electricity, burners of fossil fuels and creators of carbon dioxide – the IT industry – that something needs to be done. Technology may not yet have the answers to coping with CO2, but it does have the key to preventing its generation.

The carbon footprint of the IT and telecoms sector outgrew that of even aviation as long ago as 2007, according to Gartner analysts. And while aviation has shrunk, ICT (of which datacentres constitute 25% of power consumption) has been growing at a phenomenal rate since then. Based on the estimates contained in one analysis (SMARTer 2020), the aggregate electricity demand of the cloud (including datacentres and networks, but not devices) in 2011 was 684 billion kWh. If compared with the electricity demand of countries in the same year, the cloud would rank sixth in the world, with demand expected to increase 63% by 2020.

Cutting their energy consumption gives companies with huge datacentres the easiest possible opportunity to hit their corporate social responsibility targets. Since the datacentre industry has historically been obsessed with maintaining 100% uptime and reliability, at any price, the efficiency of power consumption has not been an issue until recently. Only in the last 10 years have companies slowly begun to try to improve their power usage efficiency (PUE). Which still leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Climate change awareness has made corporate social responsibility a useful PR and marketing tool for enterprises. As a result, Greenpeace’s annual report on the environmental consciousness of technology companies has become an important benchmark for the world’s biggest data-processing, cloud-service-providing computing behemoths. The Greenpeace reports have become a sort of Oscars of corporate social responsibility. The results are receiving increasingly dramatic receptions, and this year’s report was possibly the most hotly disputed set of verdicts yet.

Clicking Clean: How Companies Are Creating the Green Internet had some hard-hitting conclusions about some of the world’s favourite media brands. It examines how successfully companies have moved to using sustainable sources of energy. Amazon Web Services (AWS) for example receives a damning review for being “far behind its competitors”, and for its “zero reporting of its energy or environmental footprint to any source or stakeholder.” Twitter was also criticised for “lagging” in many of the same areas.

Companies did not take this criticism lying down, however, and AWS has claimed the report based its conclusions on “inaccurate data on its energy consumption and false assumptions about its operations”. Greenpeace argued that whilst Amazon representatives have said the figures were wrong it has refused to provide the correct ones.

On the other hand, the report praises the datacentre energy strategy of six major cloud brands – Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, and – which it says have committed to a goal of powering datacentres with 100% renewable energy.

“They are providing the early signs of the promise and potential impact of a renewably powered internet,” notes report author Gary Cook, senior IT policy analyst for Greenpeace.

The report also identified how datacentre owners can force changes in policy among energy providers. Technology could create a smart grid, which would provide a far more efficient, much less wasteful distribution system, which could cut consumption massively. At the moment, there is no incentive for energy suppliers to change anything. But the IT industry is forcing their hands.

For example, pressure by three major brands with locations in North Carolina — Apple, Facebook and Google – forced America’s largest utility, Duke Energy, to create the Green Source Rider (PDF). This has opened the market to renewable electricity purchasing for large customers in the region, says the Greenpeace report.

Google is still the leader in the use of renewable power for the internet, having ramped up its renewable energy purchasing and invested heavily in its utility vendors. Facebook was praised for its commitment to building a green internet. The report noted the social media giant’s decision to build a datacentre in Iowa and power it by wind turbines.

Apple was recognised as the most improved company since last year’s report. “Apple has shown itself to be the most innovative and most aggressive in pursuing its commitment to being 100% renewably powered,” said Cook.

The datacentre industry can drastically reduce emissions by creating new and more efficient ways to power computers and cool them. IBM has just announced that its mainframe technology is making a comeback in the datacentre, claiming its computers powered by its CISC (complex instruction set computing) chips can match the performance of Intel-based servers, but for half the cost, in half the space and using half the electrical power.

This problem is serious because even if power consumption of datacentres is halved, the long-term trend will still be for more climate change. This means technology may be required to find answers to the following problems highlighted by IPCC.

Lower crop yields

As the population grows, crop yields are likely to fall. The IPCC report predicts that crop demand will rise by 14% per decade until 2050, while climate change has begun depressing wheat and maize yields. Extreme heat will significantly cut yields by about 15% to 18% in future.

Developing nations will suffer most

The poorest nations, particularly developing countries in and near the tropics, will suffer the most severe climate change-related consequences, says the report. So the effects of IT and mobile communications, in creating growth in many developing nations, will be neutralised or reversed in coming years, unless technology solutions can be found to counter the effects of climate change.

The global economy will shrink

The report found that if global warming reaches 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming above pre-industrial levels, it could lead to “global aggregate economic losses” of between 0.2% and 2.0% of GDP.

Increase in water conflict

Water management will become increasingly critical, says the report, and technology will have a vital role to play. The challenge will be substantial because the IPCC predicts that renewable water resources will shrink by 20% while being shared across a population that is 7% bigger.

Rising sea-levels and storms will flood coastal cities

The IPCC says “hundreds of millions of people” will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced by loss of their land, most of them in east, southeast and south Asia. Small island states (such as the UK) can expect “costs of several percentage points of GDP”, the report says.

Sales and marketing people in the IT industry like to talk about creating holistic global solutions. If we carry on producing CO² at the same rate, we are likely to be engulfed by rising sea levels across the globe. And being submerged under an all-encompassing ocean is an ‘end-to-end global solution’ that we really don’t want. What do you think the answer is?


Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology.