Dumb terminals promoted to cut global warming

The British Government is pushing thin-client computing as a way of reducing IT's carbon dioxide emissions

The British government is launching a Green Shift taskforce to move users away from PCs and towards dumb terminals with a broadband link to a network of green datacentres. If implemented, the move would cut Microsoft’s Windows Vista and Office sales drastically.

Under the proposal, small business and home users will access office applications and email and browse the internet via a green PC service based on centralised datacentres. The home devices will use 98% less energy than standard PCs and be built with 75% fewer resources, according to the plans. A pilot service is expected in early 2007 with full rollout in late 2009.

It is an initiative by the Communities and Local Government department and involves the now-popular public/private partnership model. British local government minister Phil Woolas says “Cyber-warming is a massive issue and that is why we have taken decisive action with the appointment of the taskforce.

“The new taskforce is the first of its kind in the world and is a sign of how serious the UK is about tackling this issue. Innovative proposals like the green PC service are essential if we are to tackle climate change. Only if all of our communities are engaged in action to tackle climate change will we be successful.”

It has been calculated that PCs in the UK might contribute around 6% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, hardly the “massive issue” alluded to by Woolas when set against power station emissions. However, hyperbole is often a part of government green pronouncements.

The announcement says IT equipment is thought to generate 35 million tons of harmful CO2 gas each year, supposedly equivalent to airline industry emissions in the UK. It does not say what proportion of that is generated by the home and small business PC users at whom this green PC service is aimed. Nor does it say how this Green Shift taskforce’s goal of reducing IT carbon emissions is related to plans to expand Stanstead and Heathrow airports and thereby increase airline industry emissions.

The green datacentres will be built and operated according to low carbon-emission principles, using energy from non-fossil fuel sources, for example.

Manchester City Council is leading the taskforce. Its leader, Councillor Richard Leese, says “The green PC service is part of a package of proposals that has the potential to make a fundamental contribution in meeting the challenge of climate change. Critical to our approach is that sustainability and inclusion go hand in hand. It’s no use developing solutions that most people cannot afford.”

Neither the local government ministry, nor its parent, the Communities and Local Government department, nor Manchester City Council were able to cast any more light on the Green Shift taskforce. Its public and private members are unknown. The number and size of the green datacentres are unknown. The type of broadband link to consumers is unknown. The display screen, keyboard and mouse details are unknown, as are how consumers of the service will store their information in the green datacentres.

There is no information available on green PC service device or service pricing. How existing PC users would be persuaded to ditch their PCs for dumb terminals is not addressed.

According to a Green Shift programme document by the Manchester Digital Development Agency (MDDA), it is part of a European Union seventh Research Framework Programme (RFP).

The document states: “Engagement of users will be through a new Utility Computing service suitable for the household and SME market that provides a practical substitute for the typical household PC. The major environmental and financial savings over the conventional PC will create an incentive for take-up, generating the user base for the new network environment.”

The partner consortium in the MDDA document is described as “a pan-European mix of urban regions, academic institutions, research institutes, SMEs and multinational enterprises”, not a UK-specific programme, as the government announcement implies, at all.

Bonny Campbell, deputy head of the MDDA, says Manchester and other cities were interested in the idea of reducing IT carbon emissions and had thought about a programme to do so under the EU’s seventh RFP: “I wasn’t aware it had turned into a taskforce we are leading.”

She adds, “We decided we weren’t going to pursue European funding until later in the year in the light of government changes (the accession of Gordon Brown as Britain’s prime minister and an expected reshuffle). If Phil Woolas isn’t the minister involved later on, then we would have to start all over again.”

It appears the government and Woolas have rushed out a press release without laying the groundwork to justify them. Until more details are released, this Green Shift taskforce is just hot air.

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