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Saving The Planet, One Download At A Time


We live in an era where compute capability is ubiquitous, whether it be on a smart phone or mobile computer, and where “the cloud” can be accessed from anywhere.

In parallel, the ever-improving energy and carbon-efficiency of computers creates new opportunities to trade off atoms for bits, also known as de-materialization, and to substitute carbon-intensive activities, such as transportation, with tele-presence.

Here in Intel’s Eco-Technology group, we’re trying to learn precisely where these trade-offs exist, and under what conditions society can achieve net-positive outcomes, by harnessing technology in more environmentally beneficial ways. To that end, together with Microsoft’s sustainability group, we asked Dr. Jonathan Koomey, visiting professor at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and an expert in energy conservation technology, economics, policy and global climate change, to undertake a study of the environmental tradeoffs, between purchasing music in the traditional fashion (on CD from an online or brick and mortar store), versus purchasing and downloading the digital files.

The findings of Dr. Koomey’s research are both illuminating and provocative. One of the conclusions, perhaps not surprising: the use of a computer to purchase music digitally has the effect of reducing CO2 emissions by 40 to 80%, as compared to buying a CD via a retailer or e-tailer. Just as important: the approach taken by Dr. Koomey, to analyze and compare a wide range of factors, such as the energy and CO2 used by the Internet to transport the data, versus long-distance physical delivery methods, may provide a useful peer-reviewed methodology for how future tradeoff studies might be pursued.

This research demonstrates one concrete example of effectively using technology for improved environmental outcomes. While focusing on the energy used by data centers, it’s easy to forget that these facilities enable us to create efficiencies in other parts of society. In fact, even though overall compute consumption is on the rise, in a second paper, Dr. Koomey’s research points to the economic advantages of migrating computational activity to large-scale or cloud computing – further showcasing the merits of dematerialization and distributed computing across industries outside technology. These factors become increasingly important as the climate challenge becomes a higher priority for business, government and society. As the research shows, information technology can help consumers make smarter choices, improve the environment and save money, and any efforts to achieve measurable carbon reductions should take full advantage of these technologies.

Some questions for continued discussion and ongoing research include: Is technological progress a net threat to, or a net ally of, the environment? Does the answer depend on the technology, and how it is utilized? Where lie the other opportunities to harness technology and achieve net-positive environmental outcomes? Does Dr. Koomey’s research methodology point the way? Should society focus more on harnessing technology to assist in the sustainable management of such necessities as air quality, potable water, agriculture, and food production?

Among other places, Dr. Koomey’s latest research can be found here. I encourage you to read all three (or at least one) of the papers, then come back and join the conversation on these topics, by posting a comment below.

Image Courtesy john_a_ward via flickr under creative commons license.

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