IBM’s launch of its new sustainability initiative on October 1 prompted the following thoughts: This is among the best-targeted, best-thought-out initiatives I have ever seen from IBM. It surprises me by dealing with all the recent reservations I have had about IBM’s green IT strategy. It’s all that I could have reasonably asked IBM to do. And it’s not enough.
Key Details of the Initiative
We can skip IBM’s assertion that the world is more instrumented and interconnected, and systems are more intelligent, so that we can make smarter decisions; it’s the effect of IBM’s specific solutions on carbon emissions that really matters. What is new – at least compared to a couple of years ago – is a focus on end-to-end solutions, and on solutions that are driven by extensive measurement. Also new is a particular focus on building efficiency, although IBM’s applications of sustainability technology extend far beyond that.
The details make it clear that IBM has carefully thought through what it means to instrument an organization and use that information to drive reductions in energy – which is the major initial thrust of any emission-reduction strategy. Without going too much into particular elements of the initiative, we can note that IBM considers the role of asset management, ensures visibility of energy management at the local/department level, includes trend analysis, aims to improve space utilization, seeks to switch to renewable energy where available, and optimizes HVAC for current weather predictions. Moreover, it partners with others in a Green Sigma coalition that delivers building, smart grid, and monitoring solutions across a wide range of industries, as well as in the government sector. And it does consider the political aspects of the effort. As I said, it’s very well targeted and very well thought out.
Finally, we may note that IBM has “walked the walk”, or “eaten its own dog food”, if you prefer, in sustainability. Its citation of “having avoided carbon emissions by an amount equal to 50% of our 1990 emissions” is particularly impressive.
Fairly or unfairly, carbon emission reductions focus on reducing carbon emissions within enterprises, and emissions from the products that companies create. Just about everything controllable that generates emissions is typically used, administered, or produced by a company – buildings, factories, offices, energy, heating and cooling, transportation (cars), entertainment, and, of course, computing. Buildings, as IBM notes, are a large part of that emissions generation, and, unlike cars and airplanes, can relatively easily achieve much greater energy efficiency, with a much shorter payback period. That means that a full implementation of building energy improvement across the world would lead to at least a 10% decrease in the rate of human emissions (please note the italics; I will explain later). It’s hard to imagine an IBM strategy with much greater immediate impact.
The IBM emphasis on measurement is, in fact, likely to have far more impact in the long run. The fact is that we are not completely sure how to break down human-caused carbon emissions by business process or by use. Therefore, our attempts to reduce them are blunt instruments, often hitting unintended targets or squashing flies. Full company instrumentation, as well as full product instrumentation, would allow major improvements in carbon-emission-reduction efficiency and effectiveness, not just in buildings or data centers but across the board.
These IBM announcements paint a picture of major improvements in energy efficiency leading, very optimistically, to 30% improvements in energy efficiency and increases in renewable energy over the next 10 years – beyond the targets of most of today’s nations seeking to achieve a “moderate-cost” ultimate global warming of 2 degrees centigrade, in their best-case scenarios. In effect, initiatives like IBM’s plus global government efforts could reduce the rate of human emissions (I will explain the italics later) beyond existing targets. Meanwhile, Lester Brown has noted that from 2008 to 2009, measurable US human carbon emissions from fossil fuels went down 9 percent.
This should be good news. But I find that it isn’t. It’s just slightly less bad news.
Everyone trying to do something about global warming has been operating under a set of conservative scientific projections that, for the most part, correspond to the state of the science in 2007. As far as I can tell, here’s what’s happened since, in a very brief form:
1. Sea rise projections have doubled, to 5 feet of rise in 80 years. In fact, more rapid than expected land ice loss means that 15 feet of rise may be more likely, with even more after that.
2. Scientists have determined that “feedback loops” such as loss of the ability of ice to reflect back light and therefore decrease ocean heat, which loss in turn increases global temperature, are in fact “augmenting feedbacks”, meaning that they will contribute to additional global warming even if we decrease emissions to near zero right now.
3. Carbon in the atmosphere is apparently headed still towards the “worst case” scenario of 1100 ppm. That, in turn, apparently means that the “moderate effect” scenario underlying all present global plans for mitigation of climate change with moderate cost (450 ppm) will in all likelihood not be achieved . Each doubling of ppm leads to 3.5 degrees centigrade or 6 degrees Fahrenheit average rise in temperature (in many cases, more like 10 degrees Fahrenheit in summer), and the start level was about 280 ppm, so we are talking 12 degrees Fahrenheit rise from reaching 1100 ppm , with follow-on effects and costs that are linear up to 700-800 ppm and difficult to calculate but almost certainly accelerating beyond that.
4. There is growing consensus that technologies to somehow sequester atmospheric carbon or carbon emissions in the ground, if feasible, will not be operative for 5-10 years, not at full effectiveness until 5-10 years after that, and not able to take us back to 450 ppm for many years after that – and not able to end the continuing effects of global warming for many years after that, if ever .
Oh, by the way, that 9 % reduction in emissions in the US? Three problems. First, that was under conditions in which GNP was mostly going down. As we reach conditions of moderate or fast growth, that reduction goes to zero. Second, aside from recession, most of the reductions achieved up to now come from low-cost-to-implement technologies. That means that achieving the next 9%, and the next 9% after that, becomes more costly and politically harder to implement. Third, at least some of the reductions come from outsourcing jobs and therefore plant and equipment to faster-growing economies with lower costs. Even where IBM is applying energy efficiencies to these sites, the follow-on jobs outside of IBM are typically less energy-efficient. The result is a decrease in the worldwide effect of US emission cuts. As noted above, the pace of worldwide atmospheric carbon dioxide rise continued unabated through 2008 and 2009. Reducing the rate of human emissions isn’t good enough; you have to reduce the absolute amount of human, human-caused (like reduced reflection of sunlight by ice) and follow-on (like melting permafrost, which in the Arctic holds massive amounts of carbon and methane) emissions.
That leaves adaptation to what some scientists call climate disruption. What does that mean?
Adaptation may mean adapting to a rise in sea level of 15 feet in the next 60 years and an even larger rise in the 60 years after that. Adaptation means adapting to disasters that are 3-8 times more damaging and costly than they are now, on average (a very rough calculation, based on the scientific estimate that a 3% C temperature rise doubles the frequency of category 4-5 hurricanes; the reason is that the atmosphere involved in disasters such as hurricanes and tornados can store and release more energy and water with a temperature rise). Adaptation means adjusting to the loss of food and water related to ecosystems that cannot move north or south, blocked by human paved cities and towns. Adaptation means moving to lower-cost areas or constantly revising heating and cooling systems in the same area, as the amount of cooling and heating needed in an area changes drastically. Adaptation means moving food sources from where they are in response to changing climates that make some areas better for growing food, others worse. Adaptation may mean moving 1/6 of the world’s population from one-third of the world’s cultivable land which will become desert . In other words, much of this adaptation will affect all of us, and the costs of carrying out this adaptation will fall to some extent on all of us, no matter how rich. And we’re talking the adaptation that, according to recent posts , appears to be already baked into the system. Moreover, if we continue to be ineffectual at reducing emissions, each decade will bring additional adaptation costs on top of what we are bound to pay already.
Adaptation will mean significant additional costs to everyone – because climate disruption brings costs to everyone in their personal lives. It is hard to find a place on the globe that will not be further affected by floods, hurricanes, sea-level rise, wildfires, desertification, heat that makes some places effectively unlivable, drought, permafrost collapse, or loss of food supplies. Spending to avoid those things for one’s own personal home will rise sharply – well beyond the costs of “mitigating” further climate disruption by low-cost or even expensive carbon-emission reductions.
What Does IBM Need To Do?
Obviously, IBM can’t do much about this by itself; but I would suggest two further steps.
First, it is time to make physical infrastructure agile. As the climate in each place continually changes, the feasible or optimum places for head offices, data centers, and residences endlessly change. It is time to design workplaces and homes that can be inexpensively transferred from physical location to physical location. Moving continually is not a pleasant existence to contemplate; but virtual infrastructure is probably the least-cost solution.
Second, it is time to accept limits. The effort to pretend that we do not need to accept the need to reduce emissions in absolute, overall terms, because technology, economics, or sheer willpower will save us, as we have practiced it since our first warning in the 1970s, is failing badly. Instead of talking in terms of improving energy efficiency, IBM needs to start talking in terms of absolute carbon emissions reduction every year, for itself, for its customers, and for use of its products, no matter what the business’ growth rate is.
One more minor point: because climate will be changing continually, adjusting HVAC for upcoming weather forecasts, which only go five days out, is not enough. When a place that has seen four days of 100 degree weather every summer suddenly sees almost 3 months of it, no short-term HVAC adjustment will handle continual brownouts adequately. IBM needs to add climate forecasts to the mix.
I mention this only reluctantly, and in the certain knowledge that for some, this will devalue everything I have said. But there is every indication, unfortunately, that without effective cooperation from governments, the sustainability goal that IBM seeks, and avoidance of harms beyond what I have described here, are not achievable.
Therefore, IBM membership in an organization (the US Chamber of Commerce) that actively and preferentially funnels money to candidates and legislators that deny there is a scientific consensus about global warming and its serious effects undercuts IBM’s credibility in its sustainability initiative and causes serious damage to IBM’s brand. Sam Palmisano as Chairman of the Board of a company (Exxon Mobil) that continues to fund some “climate skeptic” financial supporters (the Heritage Foundation, at the least) and preferentially funnels money to candidates and legislators that deny the scientific consensus does likewise.
IBM deserves enormous credit for creating today comprehensive and effective efforts to tackle the climate disruption crisis as it was understood 3 years ago. But they are three years out of date. They need to use their previous efforts as the starting point for creating new solutions within the next year, solutions aimed at a far bigger task: tackling the climate disruption crisis as it is now.