Operating in a low-carbon economy is not going to be about doing the same things using less energy - it's going to be about doing things differently and doing different things.

IT already contributes substantially to the energy efficiency of organisations, but it could do more. The big opportunity for IT organisations is to improve the environmental performance of the enterprise, its supply chain and its products and services in order to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the IT industry is focusing mostly on the energy efficiency of the datacentre, rather than helping the business understand how it can reduce its environmental footprint. Clearly, the IT organisation needs to work more closely with facilities and engineering groups than it has done traditionally. Many of the solution areas are at the borders of traditional information and communication technology (ICT) that might be embedded in building, manufacturing, or distribution equipment.

Ascertaining impact

To understand where ICT can have most effect requires an understanding of the areas where the organisation's business-related activities have most environmental impact. The equation that needs to be understood is IT's own contribution versus that of internal operations, versus distribution, versus the supply chain, versus the products or services themselves. In many service sectors, it is not unusual for IT itself to have the biggest impact, followed by buildings and travel. In retail, it's usually the supply chain, the shops and the distribution logistics.

Almost every organisation needs to tackle energy consumed by the organisation's offices, as well as the transportation of people and materials. Flexible working and workplace transformation let organisations squeeze value out of their real estate and reduce emissions from commuting. IT and applications such as workplace management systems can help the enterprise to achieve this.

Beyond the immediate office environment, IT is a key enabler for replacing some business travel using remote collaboration and conferencing technologies. ICT will also be central to designing products that help lower environmental impacts, such as vehicle telemetrics. However, IT has further roles to play: satellite navigation and routing information help to maximise fuel efficiency and other systems can maximise loads in commercial vehicles.

Breaking down barriers

Also, many behavioural and cultural issues limiting the use of technology will be removed as new standards are set as to what is acceptable. This could include virtual worlds, which offer a rich environment within which people, via their avatars, can collaborate remotely.

Providing services over the Internet further reduces the need for travel. However, these services require designing with a holistic environmental perspective.

Other substitution technologies for travel and transport fall within the remit of supply-chain management where IT once again plays crucial roles in driving down carbon emissions. IT can optimise parts logistics and vehicle location services and offers remote monitoring and management for support services optimisation of field technician scheduling.

Also, planning models can be extended to include carbon emissions, a fact which means that environmental impact of business decisions can be factored in.

It's important to share this green information with stakeholders. As awareness of the environment grows, consumers and corporations will want more information about the environmental footprint of products and services to inform their purchasing decisions. This will foster eco-labelling schemes that require information systems to support them by accounting for their carbon output.

Carbon accounting will be a huge undertaking and a great opportunity for IT. Environmental management systems, business intelligence and compliance programs can all be used to collate, analyse and report on the environmental performance of the organisation, its supply chain, and products and services. As a step further, carbon and energy dashboards can drill down to the organisational, building, functional and team levels, and maybe even down to the individual level.

Ultimately, CIOs need to look at the value chains of which the enterprise is a part, and consider how the value chain could be adapted or redesigned in an energy- and carbon-constrained world.