September 2009: How Green is the Government?

In this article guest contributor Pete Foster of  www.thegreenITreview.com considers the reality behind the rhetoric when it comes to Britains's government and green IT.

According to Cabinet Office Minister Angela Smith, the UK Government has saved at least £7m over the past year by making its IT systems greener. The measures have cut the carbon footprint of central Government computers by 12,000 tonnes.

Smith gave a speech at a conference on Tuesday in which she accused the IT industry as being one of the hidden causes of climate change and that "few people are taking action to improve the situation" (which some computer manufacturers might argue with).

The government quotes a Carbon Trust estimate that ICT is responsible for up to 20% of carbon emissions generated by Government offices, around 460,000 tonnes a year.

The speech goes on "A year ago the British Government became the first in the world to set tough targets to tackle the huge environmental and financial costs of computer use and I'm delighted to see the real progress that has been made. In just 12 months we've saved enough carbon dioxide to fill almost 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools".

Departments were asked to take 18 measures, including such no-brainers as turning off all machines at night and keeping machines longer (see the full list in previous blog).

Some of the success stories quoted in the press release include:

* The Department for International Development (DfID) donating old equipment to charities in developing countries

* The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) saving £2.35m by replacing 9,500 computers and 2,500 printers every five years rather than every three

* The Home Office (HO) saving £2.4m a year by removing unused IT equipment and improving efficiency

* The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will save 200 million sheets of paper a year through cutting down the number of printers in the department and changing the default setting to double-sided printing

"All departments have risen to the challenge of cutting their IT carbon footprints and countries from around the world are now looking to us for advice on how to follow our lead. But it's not just about the Government. I hope that private companies and individuals will also recognise the savings that can be made and get on board."

Well. Firstly, lets just say that any measures that help cut the governments carbon footprint are good, but as I've said before, just focusing on the emissions from ICT (20% in the case of government) and not the other 80% is short-sighted and bad leadership.

The comments from the Minister raise a number of questions:

- What exactly are the baseline emissions that are being attacked, i.e. 12,000 tonnes were saved from a total of what? If it's the 460,000 figure from the Carbon Trust then it represents around a half of one percent of Whitehall emissions.

- Why isn't there an exact figure for the emissions from Government offices (rather than 'up to' and 'around')? If you can't measure the total accurately, how can you measure the success?

- Why were computers on all night anyway? It's tax-payers money.

- And the big question, how is the government using ICT to help reduce the other 80% of its emissions? By squeezing IT as a carbon emitter its restricting opportunities to reduce emissions elsewhere.

The government as a whole has not been doing particularly well. The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC - the UK Government's independent adviser on sustainable development) released a report in May this year critical of the public sector achievements in addressing climate change. It compares progress unfavourably against the 2006 targets. It wasn't all bad news, but the report criticised the proliferation of reporting methodologies (there's an IT opportunity for a start), confusing governance structures and poor data quality (IT again).

Among the main issues that the report concludes with are the findings that:

- The government is not leading by example, or contributing enough to UK wide emissions target, as it is not currently on track to meet its own carbon emissions from offices target.

- The full carbon impact of government's operations and procurement, including the supply chain, has not been quantified. Full and accurate carbon foot printing is essential if emissions are to be reduced and sustainability goals are to be achieved.

Please, Minister, keep switching off computers and using both sides of the paper, but also use IT as a means to accurately count government carbon emissions, to better manage facilities, to put government activities online, to help reduce travel, to better manage services, etc. Take a lead, talk to industry (much of which is well ahead of the public sector), get local government on-board. Come up with a real strategy for using IT to reduce emissions across the economy and encourage businesses to adopt it.

It's called leadership.