Most folks think that computers use a lot more energy than they actually do and that usage levels are growing at incredible rates. Neither belief is accurate, and those incorrect assumptions mask an important truth: IT has beneficial environmental effects that vastly outweigh the direct environmental impact of the electricity consumed.
Consider the example of downloading music versus buying a CD. A study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Industrial Ecology showed that, compared with buying physical CDs, downloading music reduced emissions of greenhouse gases 40% to 80% when all elements of both processes are factored in including the manufacturing, packaging and shipping of CDs and the use of electricity for computers and networking.
Other studies have found similar results. In general, moving bits is environmentally preferable to moving atoms, and whether it's dematerialisation (replacing materials with information) or reduced transportation (from not having to move materials or people, because of electronic data transfers or telepresence), IT is a game changer.
Technology can help us become smarter and more capable so we can use our resources more efficiently. This could take the form of better sensors and controls in offices and industrial buildings, like the wireless sensor networks that can be quickly and cheaply distributed in existing structures. Or it could occur through more widespread use of software to make better energy-related decisions, such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Home Energy Saver tool or the private sector tool called Wattbot, both of which I've worked on over the years.
Technology can drive change by taking advantage of innovations such as computer controls in automobile engines, which reduce pollutant emissions and improve fuel economy, smart meters that track electricity use minute by minute or analysis software that gives companies visibility into their actual energy costs by scanning utility bills (as systems from Advantage IQ do, for example).
All of these examples and more are enabled by cheap, abundant and powerful information technology.
The strength of IT should also give us hope about meeting the aggressive international goal of limiting the rate of global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius over levels seen in preindustrial times (or less). Never before has society had to confront a challenge like this, but never before have we had such powerful technology to help us. And if we combine ubiquitous mobile computing with rapid advances in solar photovoltaic technologies (like the systems used in products such as solar-powered trash-compacting garbage cans), the possibilities for truly game changing societal innovation are breathtaking.
Of course, this story is as much about personal and institutional change as it is about technology, and without a focus on the human and organisational evolution (as well as a stiff price on carbon), we'll continue on our current unsustainable path.
But an important tool for dealing with the climate challenge is already available: Information technology is allowing us to dematerialise, reduce transportation emissions and get smarter faster. There's no time to waste in putting it to work.