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Green IT, despite much hype and global focus, is not receiving significant attention from the South African industry, according to analysts. The IDC’s G20 ICT Sustainability Index, released in December last year, ranked SA at 19 out of 20 nations for its ability to use ICT to reduce CO2 emissions  n par with Indonesia.

Compounding this is the fact that local organisations aren’t even au fait with the base components of green IT, never mind the “2.0” versions being pushed by progressive international companies.

As Gartner research VP Simon Mingay explains, green IT comprises two aspects, the first being IT’s own impact and the procedures implemented to mitigate these risks, and secondly, the application of ICT in improving the organisation’s overall environmental performance.

“Around 20% of organisations have gotten to the point where they’ve grasped the low-hanging fruit, and implemented the obvious measures that bring short-term ROI. Now they’re asking ‘what next?'”

He says organisations have approached green IT mainly in terms of the first phase – such as using it in data centres – and haven’t really thought about the more strategic opportunities ICT offers. “The bulk of companies are implementing measures due to organisational governance and resource issues. But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

The worldwide tightening of budgets due to the economic downturn has helped spur the adoption of green IT, but not necessarily for environmental reasons, according to Mingay. “The recession has been a boost for green IT in many organisations, as most of the elements it deals with actually save money. Essentially, it’s all about efficiency,” he explains.

Dynamic data centre infrastructure management, for example, can bring significant savings. “Historically, the data centre was very static, with everything on 24/7, day and night,” says Mingay. “A more dynamic approach to managing the status of all the equipment in the data centre, from network switches to power distribution units, results in a stronger correlation between the work being done and the power consumed.

“The technology already exists, but few are using it because they don’t quite trust it,” he adds.

Tim James, CEO of green IT consultancy Sustainable IT, says in terms of the IT department getting its own house in order, there’s been more uptake locally in areas such as power management and virtualisation. “A major driver has been an increasing focus on energy efficiency and environmental awareness in organisations,” notes James. “IT departments are under a lot more pressure to reduce costs in the business.”

James says because SA is trailing its US and European counterparts in terms of the basic green IT components, the country is still miles behind when it comes to the next phase of green IT – using technology to improve the entire organisation’s efficiency.

An IDC report released during the United Nations climate change conference, in Copenhagen, last year showed almost 5.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions could be eliminated through the use of ICT-based initiatives by 2020. The report also anticipated that policy-makers will become more progressive and begin mandating the usage of some of these technologies.


Regarding IT trends making waves at the moment, Mingay says the move towards cloud computing offers substantial benefits from a green point of view. It has great potential to deliver order of magnitude improvements in terms of efficiency, he explains.

However, in other aspects of applying ICT to improve environmental performance, most IT departments haven’t really understood how they can contribute, adds Mingay. “We’ve been surprised at the apparent disconnect between the CEO and CFO perspective of the sustainability of the business, compared to that of CIOs, which give it a lower priority.”

One reason behind this apparent disconnect is that there’s often little understanding of how ICT can integrate with other parts of the organisation, which may have a responsibility in that area, says Mingay.

“Buildings, for example, are a big opportunity for organisations to improve energy efficiency performance, and usually this falls under the mandate of the facility manager. But they often don’t communicate well with IT, which can bring a lot of value in this area. So if an organisation wants to deliver maximum benefit from ICT and their buildings, there needs to be greater collaboration.” He says this should work itself out in the next 18 months or so, with organisations likely to be obliged to turn their attention to how ICT can improve business functioning.

According to James, some local companies are starting to take environmental sustainability more seriously, especially following initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project. This sees companies voluntarily reporting on their emissions, targets, and climate change strategies. He adds there’s likely to be more involvement as business moves into the recovery period. “Many organisations are starting to realise they need to do something and need to be seen to be doing something.”

However, local CIOs are still lacking awareness of the impact of green IT compared to their international counterparts. “We’re not seeing very many local CIOs driving it deeply from within the IT department,” notes James. “It’s not just an IT issue; in terms of broader sustainability imperatives, business in SA is not taking things seriously enough yet, despite the impacts climate change will have on SA,” he adds.

One reason for this is the many other macro-level concerns competing for attention, funding and time. “The South African government has got a whole lot of other economic issues, such as poverty and job creation, to deal with,” explains James. “So the environment, from a triple bottom line perspective, is often in last position, which is not necessarily the case in other geographies.” Changing IT’s mindset is also a challenge: “From a local IT perspective, there’s often a line of thinking that the traditional way of doing something is safe. Perhaps local CIOs are just not as innovative, or embracing opportunities as aggressively as their counterparts overseas.”


At the IBM “Smarter analytics for a sustainable future” Summit, in London last month, chief executive Samuel Palmisano highlighted the key disruptions marking the past decade, including global climate change and the economic recession, and identified “a single major shift”.

“Our world has become globally integrated – not only economically, but also in all the ways that human society intersects with the natural environment. The digital and physical systems of the world are merging.”

He argued that the increase in data, its interconnectedness, and the ability to access and analyse information has substantial impacts on how organisations address sustainability.

“There are major opportunities for delivering greater value to business by using the analytics capabilities of ICT, particularly around energy efficiency and carbon measurement,” says Mingay. He notes there’s been a lot of action by software vendors to develop power analytics tools, but adds that IT organisations are not getting involved, with projects being run from the outside.

“It’s a classic case of organisational politics and governance. Each department treats the issue in isolation, rather than stepping back and looking at how the whole organisation can engage with IT.” There’s often a reluctance to bring IT on board, he says, as it can slow down the whole project because it often involves designing an entirely new architecture. “Obviously, in the long-term, this is the right thing to do, but organisations don’t always behave rationally,” says Mingay.


“The biggest challenge is changing IT’s mindset around the major issues facing us as business and society,” says James. “It’s not just about environmental issues but about cost saving. Now that energy is getting more expensive, it’s going to start hitting home in many organisations.” With IT being a big user of energy, it’s likely to see more pressure from a financial viewpoint once legislation is in place and it becomes an obligation, says James. He thinks this could happen by the end of 2012, with laws governing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions coming in within the next two to three years.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Appetite for Change report, released in March, revealed 90% of businesses in SA believe government exerts a strong influence on environmental practices through legislation and regulation. “The absence of clarity discourages investment in change and, as such, targets need to be sufficiently ambitious and backed by legally binding frameworks to be effective,” it states.

Director of climate and energy at the National Business Initiative, Valerie Geen, says business is overloaded in terms of what is happening legislation-wise. “The current regulatory environment is overwhelming because all these changes are happening simultaneously.”

She notes that several policies regarding energy and climate change are planned to be finalised at the end of 2010 or early next year, and that regulations on carbon pricing, data collection and financing are also being debated.


With the 17th conference of parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change taking place in SA next year, James says this could be a valuable opportunity for local companies to show their green IT mettle.

“With the outlook showing it’s unlikely that a binding deal will be struck at the climate negotiations in Mexico this year, the potential successor of Kyoto may well be signed in SA,” says James. In reality, South African businesses should be gearing themselves to demonstrate what they’re doing in terms of environmental initiatives before the conference, he adds.

This is a huge opportunity, similar to the Soccer World Cup, to market SA as a player in environmentally-conscious business practices, but it’s not really receiving much attention.”

While the eyes of the world may be on SA when the major climate conference kicks off at the end of 2011, James says the country is nowhere near the green IT 2.0 level, or even green IT 1.0. “We’re on about 0.2.”

But Mingay believes the industry is making progress. “The first and foremost driver for most organisations in the private domain is pressure from stake holders – consumers, the supply chain, investors, NGOs – who are all pressing for greater transparency.”

In the public sector domain, it’s about political pressure, he adds. “Ultimately, we’ll see the introduction of requirements specifically around energy and carbon emissions, and it will become a question of compliancy.

“Long-term, there’s no doubt ICT will increasingly be employed by public and private sector organisations to improve responsibility, corporate transparency and overall efficiency.”

As Palmisano said at the London summit, debates are likely to continue on many controversial issues. “But no matter which viewpoints ultimately prevail… the systems that result will have to be smarter – more transparent, more efficient, more accessible, more innovative… and more sustainable.”

Published in iWeek

Lezette Engelbrecht
6 Oct 2010

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