Processing an inconvenient truth

Buy Via, and you can compute with a clean conscience. Unfortunately, building hardware remains a dirty business

Via's carbon-neutral processor is an interesting idea, and one that is easy to dismiss as a PR stunt or "greenwash", as it is known in environmental circles. Buy Via, and you can compute with a clean conscience; after all, its C7-D processor is more than capable of running almost any desktop application.

Sadly, it's not quite that simple. Via's plan to offset the power consumed by the processor over its life (put at three years) is akin to kidding ourselves that planting a few trees can offset the environmental impact of air travel.

The inconvenient truth is that even a PC that uses a 20-watt Via processor will consume several hundred watts in total, so Via's initiative will account for only a fraction of the power usage. Another inconvenient truth is that the methods used to mine the materials from which the chip — and other components — are made, are hugely wasteful of natural resources, which will not be accounted for. And the inconvenient truth count rises higher still when you consider that building the fab used to make the chip will have consumed vast resources, which again are not accounted for.

At the turn of the millennium, a group of companies came together to try to calculate just how much of an effect technology has on the environment. They used the concept of a Material Input Per Service unit rating, or MIPS, which accounts for all the materials and components used to deliver the service unit, then all the materials and components used to deliver those, and so on.

It was an interesting exercise. EMI found that to press a music CD and get it to a retail outlet required the movement of 2.39kg of materials. Buying a CD online is more environmentally friendly, with a MIPS rating of 1.45kg. Downloading 56 minutes of music over the Internet has a MIPS rating of 0.75kg for the download itself, or 1.32kg if it is then burnt onto a CD.

This is a relatively easy calculation. HP, which was also involved, floundered even in the relatively basic aim of producing what it felt were satisfactory figures for even the humble PDA — let alone a PC or a server.

Until we are able to make these calculations, it's going to be hard for anyone to move beyond what Via has done. Via should be congratulated for doing something, but the final inconvenient truth is that ultimately the only sure way to reduce the impact of IT hardware is to buy less of it and use existing equipment more efficiently.