Greenpeace guest post: Time for real IT Leadership in tackling Climate Change

When Greenpeace first started campaigning on the electronics sector in 2005 we wanted to see companies change the way that products were made, used and disposed of to tackle the massive amounts of toxic e-waste being dumped in developing countries.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

Tom Dowdall, Greenpeace

Tom Dowdall, Greenpeace

Guest post from Tom Dowdall, Greener Electronics Campaign Co-ordinator, Greenpeace

When Greenpeace first started campaigning on the electronics sector in 2005 we wanted to see companies change the way that products were made, used and disposed of to tackle the massive amounts of toxic e-waste being dumped in developing countries. We knew an innovative, fast-moving and competitive global industry could rise to the challenge of removing toxic chemicals from their products’ design and recycling their old products for free where ever they are sold. Since then, we’ve seen many of the major market leaders dramatically change their business polices and practices to improve the environmental performance of both the products and of the companies themselves. Their progress is clearly charted throughout the editions of our quarterly Guide to Greener Electronics.

Better products

Companies like Apple, Nokia and Sony Ericsson have removed the worst toxic chemicals from their products. Philips, Sony and Dell have massively improved their recycling schemes. Since introducing criteria on climate and energy, we’ve also seen many companies set or improve their emissions reduction targets, boost renewable energy use and improve energy efficiency across their product range.

There’s been remarkable progress from the industry on addressing environmental concerns both due to internal company change and external pressure from customers, campaigners, politicians and media. There’s still more work to do before we see truly green products on the market, but now there's an even bigger challenge on the table for the industry - fulfilling IT's potential to cut 15 per cent or more of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Crunch time for the climate

Time is fast running out if the planet is to avoid catastrophic climate change. It's the biggest and most challenging problem facing us all. 2009 is a crunch year when world leaders will either adopt strong global emissions reduction targets or go for a weak compromise that puts short-term interests ahead of the future of the planet.

The scale of the challenge requires a new style of leadership from the business world and from the businesses that stand to gain in a low-carbon economy - IT companies could be some of the potential biggest winners. However, during the negotiations currently taking place in Bonn, the head of the UN climate process, Yvo de Boer, summed up the situation:

The problem I have is that when we all get back home – it’s the potential losers that have the ear of the politicians and not the potential winners.

The days when signing a general declaration or joining a corporate club that states global warming is important and global carbon emissions should be regulated have passed. This is a battle for the future of the planet. Companies staying silent in the debate are allowing the high-carbon lobby to delay and weaken any potential global deal.

Be bold

So far, of all the companies we’ve asked, only Sun Microsystems shows clear support for the specific cuts in the US that are necessary to reach the global target - 40 per cent cuts by 2020 - that leading scientists say is required. Taking this bold stance is, of course, not going to be easy. It requires a company to defy the position of many current business customers, and it requires a company to also back this up by cutting its own emissions.

On one level it's a moral challenge - as the scale of the problem becomes even starker many more people will demand companies to take a clear position based on science. But, it's also a business challenge – if companies want to win business to reduce emissions in other sectors they have to show how their solutions actually reduce emissions and back true solutions, not just slightly more efficient oil drilling.

We already see the industry moving towards more sustainable products and practices and we’ll continue to push for more change from some of the biggest electronics companies via the Guide to Greener Electronics. Eliminating toxics chemicals, extending lifespan, improving reuse, recycling and renewable energy use are all important foundations for building IT climate solutions that will be vital to reducing global carbon emissions.

James’s previous ZDNet post rightly pointed out that the Cool IT Challenge should include more diverse types of companies from more countries. We are looking for more companies to show leadership and compete for top spot. Greener Computing called it ‘simplistic’. I say preventing catastrophic global warming is complex but needs simple prioritised action – getting global emissions down as quickly as possible and speaking out to help ensuring the biggest polluters make the biggest cuts.

To be clear, this is not about “agreeing with Greenpeace”. It’s about which companies are showing the new, decisive style of corporate leadership needed and which companies are best placed to provide cutting edge climate solutions. Without both, the chances of achieving a planet-saving deal in Copenhagen are looking a lot worse.

Tom Dowdall Greenpeace International Amsterdam

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