In August the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its starkest warning ever. The IPCC concluded that human influence has unequivocally warmed the planet and changed weather patterns. At the same time, it noted, there is still a window in which humans can alter Earth's climate path. The actions we take to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases can impact the future climate, the report emphasizes.
There are many ways that members of the technical and scientific community can help with this urgent and important grand challenge. One natural fertile area that we can exploit is information technology.
Information and communication technology together are responsible for an estimated 1.4 percent of global CO2 emissions. There are ways to lower those emissions. But the IT sector also holds the potential to help reduce overall global emissions. In fact, a report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative estimates that IT solutions can help cut nearly 10 times more CO2 than they emit.
Here are several strategies we can employ to address the climate crisis and create a sustainable environment for us and the generations that follow. They can all be categorized as ways to "Green IT," an umbrella term referring to environmentally sound information technologies and systems, applications, and practices. I address them more fully in a recent Cutter Consortium report, Greening IT: Need and Opportunities, which you can access for free.
1. GREENING OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
This inward-looking approach focuses on reengineering IT products and processes to improve their energy efficiency, maximize their use, minimize their carbon 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 life cycle of IT greener, we must address environmental impacts and sustainability in three major areas associated with computers: their design and manufacture; their use; and their disposal, reuse, and recycling.
What many don't realize is that, like hardware, software can contribute to environmental problems. Computationally inefficient software can have a major impact on energy consumption, and hence the need for environmentally friendly types, branded as green software.
The computational demands and use of advanced artificial-intelligence and machine-learning systems are increasing significantly. From 2012 to 2018, for instance, the computational cost of advanced AI applications that use deep-learning models increased by 300,000 times, causing a significant rise in electric power consumption and resource utilization. The wasteful approach of throwing more computing power at a problem to get better results has been dubbed red AI. The emerging green AI, or environmentally friendly AI, on the other hand, addresses the issue by minimizing ML's computational demand and reducing its carbon footprint.
As outlined in a recent IEEE Spectrumarticle, AI can be made greener by developing and using a less-power-consuming ML model; creating and sharing reproducible code that will reduce duplicated efforts; and developing and using 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 power efficiency in green AI.
The other embodiment of green AI is the use of artificial intelligence as a powerful enabler or tool in minimizing carbon emissions in other key industry sectors, as briefly outlined below.
2. GREENING BY IT
In addition to making IT greener, engineers can use it to help make manufacturing, energy, agriculture, health care, and buildings greener. Software can be used, for example, to analyze, model, and simulate environmental impacts in areas such as manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. Algorithms could help logistics firms optimize routes and manage fleets. Sensors and wireless sensor networks can facilitate collection of real-time data and improve efficiency in a range of applications.
U.K grocery chain Morrisons, for example, uses external and internal data sets such as weather, sales information, and real-time inventory 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 could reduce carbon emissions. Electronics company Bosch, for example, used AI to predict its future energy consumption, avoid high peaking loads, and manage patterns of consumption, resulting in emissions reduction by 10 percent in two years.
3. GREEN AWARENESS
Many people are not yet aware of how serious the climate crisis is and how it affects 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 for raising awareness of the climate crisis and environmental sustainability, as well as for promoting best practices and behavioral changes. The WikiHow Environmental Awareness web page, for example, presents information that the public can easily comprehend. On its social media pages 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 happened in their community 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 carbon-offset projects. It offers businesses and volunteer teams a simple, trustworthy, and cost-effective solution that enables them to develop and manage programs.
We can create a community to take part in climate action drives and crowdsource help for climate science researchers. The Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog lists community projects in the United States in which citizens can get involved.
The UNESCO Green Citizens 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 communities, mainly in rural and remote regions.
Online tools such as those on the UKCIP website can help organizations, industry sectors, and governments address the crisis.
For many companies, green issues have become a priority at the board level. There are several reasons including rising energy consumption and energy prices, growing consumer interest in green products and services, higher expectations by the public regarding environmental responsibilities, and stricter compliance requirements in the works. Environmental issues affect the competitive landscape, so businesses have 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 times. It is everyone's ethical and social responsibility to do their part to decrease global warming and its disastrous consequences. We engineers and ICT professionals can and should be part of the solution. We ought to exploit the promise of IT and other technologies to deliver significant environmental, social, and economic benefits to us all—a triple win!
Let's pledge—and act now—to create a cleaner and greener planet.
Here are additional resources from IEEE.
The IEEE Communication Society's Technical Committee on Green Communications and Computing has several special-interest groups.
Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices, San Murugesan and G.R. Gangadharan (editors), IEEE Press–Wiley, 2012.
- Can Technology Reverse Climate Change? - IEEE Spectrum ›
- Engineers: You Can Disrupt Climate Change - IEEE Spectrum ›
- AI's Benefit to Solar and Wind Power Isn't Hot Air - IEEE Spectrum ›
- Here’s How to Make Deep Learning More Sustainable - IEEE Spectrum ›