Going Green: US vs. Europe

In Iceland sits Thor. Not a Norse God, but a supercomputer. And a special one at that, for it's the world's first zero-emissions supercomputer. Powered by geothermal energy, Thor represents the pinnacle of Green IT.
According to Gartner, improving sustainability will become a top priority for the majority of companies in the next couple of years. With good reason, sustainability and the concept of Green IT have grown in stature in recent years. In developed countries such as the UK and the US, IT accounts for around 2% of energy use. Maybe not much, but that figure is predicted to rise dramatically in the years to come. Paperless offices, concerns over rare metals, eWaste, inefficiency, plus the usual concerns about where the juice to power everything is coming from are higher in priority than they've ever been. The fact that data center power usage has soared by over 60% in a year and rumours that cloud computing isn't as Green as we first thought have brought computing's role in the environment to the fore.
As two of the biggest markets for pretty much every kind of tech, and responsible for many of the rules that help or hinder the cause, how do the US & Europe vary in their approach to Green IT & sustainability?
Though it differs across individual countries, Europe as a whole is right at the fore when it comes to trying to go Green. The EU is funding the "Eurocloud" project for cleaner cloud technology, and aims to make Europe the "home of Green computing". Couple this with numerous directives and regulations and it's very hard to fault Europe on its policy efforts.
In the US meanwhile, things aren't quite so advanced. During his election campaign, President Obama stated that 'climate change is not a hoax', something that wouldn't need to be said in most countries. He did however, promise further efforts to support to clean energy. As well as a large pro-oil section of government, the SMARTer2020 report explains the commitment to the Green cause varie wildly from state to state, making reduction in emissions much harder.
The commitment of companies to the Green cause also varies depending on which side of the pond you do business. A 2011 KPMG report found that 55% of US companies have a sustainability plan, compared to 62% of their European counterparts, though newer US figures show an increase of around 10% (current Euro numbers are hard to find).
Greenpeace, who are campaigning for Greener clouds and greater transparency, release a regular report - the Good Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics - to ‘evaluate leading consumer electronics companies based on their commitment and progress' in a variety of environmental criteria. Indian electronics company Wipro took the top spot, while the US and Europe both featured two each in the top ten - HP (2nd) & Dell (5th), Nokia (3rd) & Phillips (10th).
Because it is such a big issue, there are a whole host of lists and indexes on sustainability, with much of the focus going on the world's biggest companies. EIRIS's April report rates the ‘Global 50' from A to E. Out of 30 US companies, none scored an A grade, and only three (including Intel) were rated B, while four scored E's. European companies meanwhile, fared much better. Out of 14, four were given A's, and the lowest was a C. It was a similar story with the recent ‘Global 100 most sustainable corps in the world' list - ten US companies to 55 European; three compared to 14 in the top 20.
There are good guys and bad guys from both regions. In Europe, SAP and Logica have made significant efforts, and an Irish company, MicroPro, who developed a wooden tablet christened ‘the world's greenest PC' also deserve a mention. On the other hand, Microsoft recently came under fire for trying to hide a $210,000 penalty relating to energy use and heavy use of diesel generators meant for ‘backup use'- 3,615 hours in a year compared to Yahoo's 65.
While Microsoft may not be embracing Green yet, many US companies are. A recent TORK report showed that "77% of US companies - consider a vendor's commitment to sustainability a ‘somewhat important' factor in deciding whether to purchase products or services from a company," a big number gains even more significance compared to the 36% who said the same thing the year before. Apple provided an interesting case last year- in July it backed out of EPEAT Green electronics registry (a list of Green electronics) before quickly re-joining and redoubling its Green efforts after a massive backlash from the public and being blacklisted by government.
The Apple incident highlights the importance of people in the sustainability chain. National Geographic's Greendex looks at people's perception of Green issues, and showed some interesting results. As well as being the most sceptical, Americans are one of the least concerned or guilty about their impact on the environment, believe individuals can make a difference (yet make little effort themselves) and strongly believe companies are working hard to keep the environment clean. Europeans, though faring better, aren't much more concerned or guilty, but do consider themselves Green. And they all feel more cynical about the efforts companies are making on the Green front, but this may be because the US is more accepting of big business.
Fuel Guzzling?
Though much of this blog seems harsh on the US, it is fair to say as one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world there should be more urgency in their sustainability efforts. That being said, while the US has been steadily weaning itself off coal onto natural gas (not renewable but a cleaner alternative) conditions in Europe have inadvertently created a "Golden Age of Coal." Once new laws come into effect in the next few years, coal burning will have to go down, but for now the US is showing Europe up in a game it wants to be leading.
Overall though, if Iceland can run carbon-free supercomputers, why isn't everyone else looking to the Mighty Thor for inspiration?

Auhor: Dan Swinhoe

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