Making Information Tech Greener Can Help Address the Climate Crisis

In August, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its strongest warning ever. The IPCC concluded that human influence has unequivocally warmed the globe and changed weather patterns. At the same time, it noted that there is still a window where humans can change the Earth’s climate path. The actions we take to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases could affect the future climate, the report emphasizes.

There are many ways in which members of the technical and scientific community can help with this urgent and important major challenge. A naturally fertile area that we can exploit is information technology.

Information and communication technology together account for an estimated 1.4 percent of global CO2 emissions. There are ways to reduce these emissions. But the IT sector also has the potential to help reduce overall global emissions. In fact, a report from the Global e-Sustainability Initiative estimates that IT solutions can help reduce almost 10 times more CO2 than they broadcast.

Here are several strategies we can use to deal with the climate crisis and create a sustainable environment for us and subsequent generations. They can all be categorized as ways of “green IT”, an umbrella term that refers to environmentally sound information technologies and systems, applications and practices. I address them more fully in a recent report from the Cutter Consortium, Greener IT: Needs and opportunities, which you can access for free.

1. GREENING OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

This introverted approach focuses on redeveloping IT products and processes to improve their energy efficiency, maximize their use, minimize their CO2 footprint and meet compliance requirements. We can make elements of IT greener, including hardware, software, data centers and the Internet of Things. To make the entire IT life cycle greener, we need to address environmental impacts and sustainability in three main areas related to computers: their design and manufacturing; their use; and their disposal, reuse and recycling.

What many do not realize is that software, like hardware, can contribute to environmental problems. Computational inefficient software can have a major impact on energy consumption and thus the need for environmentally friendly types, labeled as
green software.

The computational requirements and the use of advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning systems are increasing significantly. From 2012 to 2018, for example, the computational cost of advanced AI applications using deep-learning models increased by 300,000 times, leading to a significant increase in electrical power consumption and resource utilization. The wasteful approach of throwing more computing power into a problem for better results has been dubbed red AI. The new green AI or eco-friendly AI, on the other hand, solves the problem by minimizing ML’s computational demand and reducing its CO2 footprint.

As outlined in a recent
IEEE spectrum article, AI can be made greener by developing and using a less power-consuming ML model; creation and sharing of reproducible code that reduces duplication of work; and development and use of specialized hardware optimized for AI workload. For more details refer to this article. The IEEE Special Interest Group on Green AI focuses on issues related to performance and energy efficiency in green AI.

The second embodiment of green AI is the use of artificial intelligence as a powerful activation or tool to minimize CO2 emissions in other key industrial sectors, as briefly described below.

2. GREENING OF IT

In addition to making IT greener, engineers can use it to make manufacturing, energy, agriculture, healthcare and buildings greener. Software can e.g. Used to analyze, model and simulate environmental impacts in areas such as manufacturing, logistics and transport. Algorithms can help logistics companies optimize routes and manage fleets. Sensors and wireless sensor networks can facilitate the collection of data in real time and improve the efficiency of a variety of applications.

The UK grocery chain Morrisons, for example, uses external and internal data sets such as weather, sales information and inventory in real time to optimize demand and replenishment – which has resulted in reduced waste, according to industry publication RetailWeek.

Machine learning and other software tools can help guide decisions that can reduce CO2 emissions. The electronics company Bosch, for example, used AI to predict its future energy consumption, avoid high peak loads and control consumption patterns, resulting in a 10 percent reduction in emissions in two years.

GREEN HEATING

Many people are not yet aware of how serious the climate crisis is and how it is affecting them and the world. IT can help keep them informed and get them more involved.

We can use social media and websites to disseminate information and create collaborative platforms to raise awareness of the climate crisis and environmental sustainability, as well as to promote best practices and behavior change. The WikiHow environmental awareness site presents e.g. Information that the public can easily understand. On its social media sites and relevant LinkedIn groups, people can post links to news articles, reports and scientific evidence and videos from trusted sources. They can discuss changes that have taken place in their society due to climate change and the practices they have adopted, and they can motivate others to adopt them.

CarbonClick is a platform that generates support for a greener planet by connecting people to CO2 offset projects. It offers companies and volunteer teams a simple, reliable and cost-effective solution that enables them to develop and manage applications.

We can create a community to participate in climate initiatives and crowdsource assistance to climate science researchers. The Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog lists community projects in the United States in which citizens can become involved.

The UNESCO Green Project is another example. One of its programs, Innovation for Sustainable Development network, brings together key stakeholders. The network also serves as a platform for disseminating information among local communities, mainly in rural and remote regions.

Online tools such as those on the UKCIP website can help organizations, industry sectors and governments deal with the crisis.

For many companies, green issues have become a priority at the board level. There are several reasons, including increasing energy consumption and energy prices, increasing consumer interest in green products and services, greater expectations from the public for environmental responsibility and stricter requirements for compliance with the plants. Environmental issues affect the competitive landscape, so companies need to create strategies that address them.

But we must look beyond the bottom line. The climate crisis is upon us, and it is the defining story of our time. It is everyone’s ethical and social responsibility to do their part to reduce global warming and its catastrophic consequences. We engineers and ICT professionals can and should be part of the solution. We should take advantage of the promise of IT and other technologies to deliver significant environmental, social and economic benefits for all of us – a triple victory!

Let us promise – and act now – to create a cleaner and greener planet.

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William

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