Carbon-free computing in the UK

The U.K. government has launched a bold plan to slash the carbon emissions of its computer systems in a bid to become the first in the world to make all of its computers carbon neutral in four years.

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson has unveiled 18 measures to change the habits of civil servants, so agencies can reduce their carbon footprint.

Watson said information and communication technology (ICT) accounts for up to 20 percent of carbon emissions generated by government offices, around 460,000 tons a year. Watson’s plan is aimed at making energy consumption from all of the government’s information and communication technology carbon neutral by 2012.

Announcing the plan at London’s Science Museum, Watson said the government won’t achieve its targets just by offsetting “but by making serious changes to the way we do business”.

The proposals include rolling out technology that would switch off desktop computers if they are inactive for too long. “Turning off every desktop PC in central Government for the 16 hours that fall outside the standard working day could save up to 117,500 tons of CO2 per year — equivalent to taking 40,000 cars off the road,” the Cabinet Office said in a statement.

The government will also extend its refresh cycles, to reuse as much computer equipment as possible to save both energy and money. Another measure is to audit Whitehall’s data centers and server use to ensure they are running at maximum efficiency.

The government hopes that by 2020 government ICT will be carbon neutral across its lifecycle. Whitehall has an overarching target to reduce greenhouse gases by 26% or more by 2020 and by at least 60% by 2050.

Departments will be asked to base their environmental action plans around these rules and will be expected to report on their implementation in their submissions to the Transformational Government Annual Report.

Watson said: “Worldwide, computers are responsible for the same quantity of carbon emissions as the airline industry. It is a serious problem that requires a serious solution.”

The government has faced criticism for its failure to cut its energy usage. Independent watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission, said in its annual report in March that more than half of Whitehall departments were failing to reduce their carbon emissions by enough to meet their targets.

Andrew Lee, chief executive of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), said: “This is a welcome move and a radical target. As the SDC reported earlier this year, government departments have a long way to go on reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, and tackling IT will be crucial to this effort. We look forward to seeing departments build on these first steps with sustained and decisive action.”

John Higgins, director general of computer industry trade body Intellect, welcomed the green IT guidelines: ” The hi-tech sector around the world has demonstrated that it can make its own products more energy-efficient and use technology to generate wider carbon savings. Intellect’s Public Sector Council agreed yesterday to form a dedicated task group to focus on the issue and help make today’s ambitions for greening government IT a reality.”

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