Gartner: IT can reduce company's carbon footprint

CIOs need to be aware of the environmental impact of the whole organization, and whether IT helps or hinders green efforts, analyst group Gartner has said.

Defining the environmental value of IT will become a "crucial business skill" for CIOs, as green concerns will increasingly weigh in on decisions about IT investments, according to Simon Mingay, research vice-president at Gartner.

But deploying more IT can "significantly contribute" to making an organization more environmentally sustainable, Gartner said.

Speaking ahead of the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Cannes next month, analysts said businesses should focus more on how IT can help lessen the environmental impact of business operations and the supply chain, rather than just looking at the environmental impact of IT.

"IT is only one of many contributors to the environmental footprint of an organization alongside many other factors such as product design, supply chain, production, logistics, travel and procurement," said Mingay. "IT has the potential to have a positive environmental impact on many of these other factors and in turn reduce an organization's overall environmental footprint."

Mingay outlined what Gartner has described the "three degrees of IT's environmental impact", which can help CIOs to pinpoint ways IT can help reduce a company's carbon footprint.

In Gartner's assessment, first degree impact comprises IT, such as electronic waste, use of non-renewable energy and user behavior.

Second degree impact is the effect of IT on business operations and the supply chain, including: material and energy consumption; emissions or waste from manufacturing and all operational processes; paper consumption; lighting, heating, and cooling; workforce commuting and mobility; vehicle fleets; supply chain impact and waste disposal.

Third degree impact is the direct impact caused by buying and using the enterprise's products or services.

For example, in the case of a car manufacturer, the energy that goes into assembling cars, manufacturing and shipping components, and performing testing is all part of the second degree impact. The fuel used for the cars and their carbon dioxide emissions constitute the third degree impact. The IT that runs the factory constitutes the first degree of impact.

Mingay continued: "Once you start looking at the relative weight of each degree on a company's overall environmental impact, the differences across industry sectors are quite striking. In most manufacturing industries, where there is a significant processing of materials or where the process is particularly energy-intensive, IT's proportionate first degree contribution to the environment is tiny, which suggests that the best approach would be to use IT to minimize the second and third degree effects."

In contrast, IT's input to the ecological footprint is proportionally higher in sectors that rely heavily on IT as part of its prime business, such as financial services and government.

"Understanding where an organization's operations have the greatest effect on the environment -- as well as the influence of product or service life cycles -- is critical when determining where the most impact can be realized through IT innovation and investment," Mingay added. "IT and the internet have transformed society and the commercial world. IT has a vital role to play in improving the environmental sustainability of our society, economies, businesses and public services."

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