We often claim that using the net more will cut our carbon footprint. More e-meetings mean fewer flights and car journeys. There's no doubt that we can save enormous amounts of money and time by having smarter ways of meeting and collaborating.
But maybe we shouldn't be too smug here. Better not mention concepts like the paperless office - ever seen one? Despite everything being on the net we still print embarrassing amounts of unneccessary hard copies every day in every office I've ever been in. Then there's the question of all the equipment we throw away every couple of years. Perfectly good machines are being sent to the scrapheap after only a few years because the industry demands that we update regularly.
There's a new report from the British organisation JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) called Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education that deals with the environmental footprint of our computerised higher education sector. They estimate that in UK higher education alone there are nearly 1.5 million computers plus around 250,000 printers and a similar number of servers. The electricity bill for all these is substantial but the main worry is that all of these have fairly short useful lives before new software and capacity demands render them obsolete. Computer graveyards are overflowing.
The report looks at the problems and offers a variety of possible solutions. The thin-client/cloud computing model seems promising since this puts the applications in "the cloud" rather than on your hard drive and maybe we won't need to replace our terminals so often. We can learn to print out less, manage our storage space more actively (many servers are clogged up with useless and obsolete files) and find more ways of saving energy.
There are many excellent proposals here but it's a hard battle when the industry demands new products every month and make sure that whatever you buy today will be hopelessly out of date in a couple of years. The first wave of flat screen TVs are already turning up at the recycling plants.