Unless the IT industry adopts new energy-efficient technologies in
the coming decade, it runs a serious risk of being unable to contribute
to growing the global economy if limits are placed on carbon emissions.
The findings come from an 18-month investigation by scholars at the
Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID) in Singapore
and Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.
"In the face of growing global concerns over greenhouse carbon
emission, the key for the industry is finding new technologies that
deliver more performance for each kilogram of CO2 emitted," said Rice
computer scientist Krishna Palem, who directs ISAID, a joint institute
of Rice and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
"Fortunately, there are viable technological options on the table and
the information and communication industries have a strong track record
of embracing new technologies."
The report found the information and communication technology (ICT)
industry in the U.S. is on pace to grow its carbon emissions at twice
the rate of its contributions to gross domestic product over the coming
"In the U.S. in 2009, the economic output of the ICT industry per
kilogram of CO2 emitted was about $2.83, and in a business-as-usual
scenario, that output will fall to about $1.06 per kilogram of CO2 by
2020," said study co-author Chris Bronk, a fellow in technology,
society and public policy at the Baker Institute and lecturer of
computer science at Rice. "Based on those numbers, the industry is
headed for a brick wall if limits are placed on CO2 emissions. In a
carbon-constrained economy, green innovation will be absolutely
essential for ICT profitability."
The report included a painstaking analysis of both the carbon
emissions and the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) that are
delivered each year by the information and communication technology
(ICT) industry. The report also offers a new metric, the sustainability
innovation quotient (SIQ), which expresses the number of dollars
returned in GDP by the ICT industry for each kilogram of carbon dioxide
"Sustainability research and development is one of the key thrusts
for NTU, and the latest research findings involving scholars from the
joint NTU-Rice Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics, are
a further affirmation of NTU's capabilities and commitment in promoting
sustainability globally," said NTU Provost Bertil Andersson. "The
Sustainability theme pervades the University, and it is through
initiatives such as ISAID that NTU aims to promote and develop new
energy-efficient technologies, playing its global role in achieving a
The report grew out of a graduate course on information technology
sustainability that Bronk and Palem, Rice's Ken and Audrey Kennedy
Professor of Computing, co-taught at Rice in spring 2009. In preparing
for the course, Palem and Bronk found a dearth of verifiable
information about the ICT industry's carbon footprint, and Palem
suggested the in-depth analysis after neither they nor their students
found a reliable metric that related the ICT industry's contribution to
gross domestic product relative to its carbon footprint.
Working with Bronk and Palem, graduate students Avinash Lingamneni
and Kirthi Muntimadugu compiled numbers from government and industry
sources. The team determined the number of various devices that are in
use today, how much energy they consume and how that consumption is
likely to be effected by expected growth in demand. Because IT devices
don't emit CO2 themselves, but instead use electricity that is produced
largely by burning coal and natural gas, the authors factored in the
effect of cleaner, more efficient electric production technologies that
will be rolled out in the coming decade.
In addition to information technology staples like PCs and laptops,
the authors studied communications devices like smart phones, and they
considered the impact of video game consoles -- one of the market's
fastest growing product segments. Networking equipment for
telecommunications and wireless providers was not included in the
report, but data centers were, due largely to previous studies that had
looked at their energy consumption in significant detail.
The authors calculated the global carbon emissions that will likely
result if the ICT industry continues with business as usual. The
calculations showed that global carbon emissions related to PCs and
laptops, which accounted for 48.5 percent of all global ICT emissions
in 2009, will nearly quadruple by 2020. Data center-related emissions
will more than triple by 2020, and calculations showed that emissions
related to both game consoles and mobile phones will more than triple
by 2020. Mobile phones, which are constrained by battery life, and game
consoles will together account for just 5.01 percent of total ICT
emissions by 2020.
ISAID, a bi-national institute founded in 2010 by Rice and NTU, is
based in Singapore and dedicated to developing, finding and fostering
sustainable, low-cost, energy-efficient information technologies.