Building electronic devices and connecting them to the internet has a significant impact on global warming, on the consumption of non-renewable resources and on the production of waste. Green computing is the answer, and aims to build an eco-sustainable IT through new technologies and best practices.
Find out what green computing is, why it is important and how it applies in all the life cycle of computers, smartphones and other digital devices:
What is green computing?
Green computing, or green IT, is the sustainable use of computing devices, from the smallest ones we can hold to the servers and infrastructures of the largest data centers. By green computing or green IT, we also mean research aimed at reducing the environmental impact of IT equipment: personal computers and servers, scanners, printers, smartphones and external peripherals.
People started talking about green computing in 1992 when the US Environmental Protection Agency launched Energy Star, a program for the voluntary certification of the energy efficiency of monitors and other appliances. This is why the energy-saving mode was born and became widespread.
To make IT environmentally sustainable, we need to consider the entire life cycle of electronic equipment and minimize its environmental impact at all stages:
Why we need green computing
We need green computing to limit the environmental damage caused by the electronics industry and the IT sector, and to study new technologies and practices for zero-impact computing.
In fact, the Internet risks becoming one of the most polluting sectors, but it is above all the production of electronic devices that aggravates the climate and ecological crisis, because of the toxic raw materials and the complex processes, requiring a lot of energy and a lot of water. It takes months to make a microchip, during which a long series of cuts and finishes generate considerable waste compared to the size of the finished product.
With current technologies, the production of a single computer involves the emission of 227-270 kilos of carbon dioxide. The consumption of water and the amount of waste from the electronics industry are also considerable: according to The Guardian, in the first three months of 2021 the Intel plant in Ocotillo had already produced 15 thousand tons of waste, of which 60% dangerous. and consumed more than 4 million liters of water and 561 thousand kilowatt-hours of electricity.
The situation is aggravated by the speed with which equipment becomes obsolete, the growing demand for electronic items, and the difficulty of disposing of components. Furthermore, the percentage of differentiated electronic waste is very low – around 14% in Europe – a sign that a large part of it ends up directly in landfills.
Using devices also entails an important overall consumption of electricity, especially if data is transferred online. Although the single user may consume little, the billions of connected items emit the same amount of CO2 as a small country. This is why green cloud is essential in the fight against climate change.
It is not only a problem of pollution but also of energy availability: if the energy demand continues to grow at this rate, there is a risk of not being able to satisfy it, not with renewable sources alone.
Eco-sustainable design of electronic devices
Green computing means first of all designing highly efficient and durable electronic objects, easy to upgrade, largely recyclable and free of toxic substances.
By recycling materials, the energy spent to extract and transform them is better exploited, avoiding making the environmental crisis worse with further waste, and saving greenhouse gas emissions. Even better results are obtained by re-using devices or their parts, that is, assigning them to a new use to also keep the energy consumed in processing them.
Electronic items must therefore be designed according to the circular economy. Each piece should be reused and the materials recycled, so that nothing ends up in landfills. To get closer to this ideal goal, it is necessary to realize simple objects, without non-functional parts, and to choose recyclable, biodegradable or recycled materials.
Since the life of electronic objects depends very much on the possibility of repairing or replacing individual parts, a green design requires components that can be inspected, separated and possibly replaced. This way, it will not be necessary to throw away the entire device when it breaks or becomes out of date.
In terms of energy needed to operate appliances, engineers are working on CPUs with increasing energy efficiency: so that PCs, servers, printers and smartphones consume as little as possible.
Obviously, green computing also implies the exclusion or the limitation of components containing substances harmful to the environment and to the people employed in the extraction and production processes.
Eco-sustainable production of electronic devices
Of the energy consumed by a computer during its entire life cycle, more than 70% is spent in the production phase. Of this, the amount needed to extract and transform the raw materials used accounts for only 10%.
It is processors, and mainly chips, that contribute the most to the ecological footprint, especially since part of the electricity used is still obtained from fossil sources. But these components are not only responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions: their realization requires an enormous amount of water and the use of hazardous substances.
This is why to reduce the impact of information technology on CO2 emissions and global warming, it is essential to create and assemble electronic components in a more eco-sustainable way.
Production plants must be energy efficient and powered by renewable sources. But given the complexity of the work — 3-4 months to produce a chip — this may not be enough. A big step forward could be made by introducing new technologies that significantly reduce water and electricity consumption, and waste.
For example, much of the silicon in microchips is almost unused — it is the so-called dark silicon. However, a way has not yet been found to use less of it without a loss in the performance of semiconductors.
Research in the field of green computing continues. Meanwhile, the growing interest in environmental issues is driving several IT companies to work on the eco-sustainability of processes and products.
Environmentally friendly use of computer equipment
Given the pace at which the number of electronic devices used daily increases — accelerated by the advent of 5G — and their overall environmental impact, it is important to get used to using each individual device in an eco-conscious way.
A 2015 study estimated that only 10% of the energy consumed by PCs was actually used for computing: the rest is spent idling. Putting computers, printers and scanners on standby, or turning them off when you stop working, is a first step in reducing your “digital” ecological footprint. Another step could be to choose devices designed according to the principles of green computing.
Today, the energy consumption of information technology is also reduced thanks to new technologies that optimize the exploitation of hardware, such as:
- Server virtualization, which allows you to run multiple virtual machines on a single server and therefore keep fewer devices on.
- Algorithms that manage the switching on and off of servers according to the workload, making sure that few of them work at their maximum capacity while all the others stay off.
Moreover, smart use of information technology can contribute to the reduction of energy consumption. This is the case with the digitization of services that were until recently analog, such as answering machines. With sensors that in various sectors allow calibrating the operation of the machines according to environmental conditions. With the cloud, where data storage and backup are more eco-sustainable compared to solutions based on local hard drives; the cloud also allows to access online services that once required the movement of people and objects.
How organizations can implement green computing
Here are some ways organizations (and people) can implement green computing:
- Adopting an eco-sustainable cloud service for data storage and backup.
- Choosing efficient, certified equipment, for example, those with the Energy Star mark.
- Purchasing quality devices, that last longer.
- Repairing or adapting non-functioning or underperforming devices.
- When the time comes to dispose of your electronic equipment, arranging for it to be reused. There are organizations that can do this for you.
- Putting computers to sleep mode or hibernating them when taking a break. Turning them off when not working.
- Considering using laptops and tablets instead of desktop computers, since they consume less energy.
- Taking advantage of digital technology to avoid polluting emissions, for example: working remotely and meeting online to avoid travelling, not printing unless it is essential thus saving paper.
Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing – Harvard University, Facebook Inc., Arizona State University
The computer chip industry has a dirty climate secret – The Guardian
Can computer chip makers reduce environmental impact? – Stanford University
5 surprising ways computers are greening our planet – Science Node
Green Computing: Barriers and Benefits – International Journal of Computational Intelligence Research