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01 Apr 2009

The greening of Gershon

by Alexandra Wedutenko, Lisa Keeling

Australian Government agencies will need to consider the carbon footprint of their ICT, although the rules are yet to be developed.

Sir Peter Gershon's Review of the Australian Government's use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) was published in August 2008. The purpose of the Gershon review was to review and report on both the efficiency and effectiveness of the Australian Government's use of ICT to determine whether the Government is realising the greatest return from its investments in ICT, and to examine whether the right institutional arrangements are in place to support this objective. The Gershon recommendations were accepted in full by the Government.

In this article, we consider Gershon's recommendation in relation to sustainability of the Australian Government's ICT.

Sustainability recommendation

The Gershon Review's recommendation in relation to sustainability of ICT is:

"Develop a whole-of-government ICT sustainability plan (in conjunction with Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA)) to manage the carbon footprint of the Government's ICT activities."

The Executive Summary of the Gershon Review also refers to managing the energy costs of the Government's ICT activities.

This recommendation, as well as other greening government policies, has stemmed from the increasing level of concern worldwide about the environment and the increasing energy usage worldwide from electronic items, including data centres, servers and desktop hardware.

Having regard to these concerns, Gershon requested agencies to respond to survey questions in relation to their energy usage and the cost of the ICT estate. The majority of agencies surveyed were reported as having been unable to provide meaningful or consistent data on their ICT energy usage. Agencies that did respond to the sustainability survey questions demonstrated an increase in energy consumption, as well as an increase in the cost of that energy.

Environmental and ICT sustainability

Environmental sustainability is, broadly, the ability to maintain the qualities that are valued in the physical environment. Green procurement can be used to benefit the environment in resource and carbon terms, reduced energy costs, lower carbon emissions and sustainable design and disposal practices.

Assessing the overall benefits of green ICT can be difficult, however, given the trade-offs ICT represents in other areas, such as reducing the need for:

  • people to travel, in that it enables the public to be able to access Government information online or over the phone, as well as enabling public servants to undertake Government work remotely; and
  • hard-copy material to be printed,

both of which contribute to the carbon footprint.

DEWHA has already established a policy for Greening of Government, which includes obligations arising under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conversation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and the Energy Efficiency in Government Operations (EEGO) policy. Amongst other things, the EPBC Act and the EEGO policy require agencies to:

  • report and document the effect of their actions on the environment;
  • include information about their performance against Ecologically Sustainable Development principles in their annual reports;
  • have and maintain an Environmental Management System, which must incorporate environmental purchasing practices;
  • establish energy intensity portfolio targets; and
  • be aware of environment and whole-of-life issues when formulating purchasing requirements, specifications and requests for offer as part of the procurement process.

Parts of the EEGO are relevant to ICT, as they require agencies to purchase energy efficient appliances and office equipment, as well as impose targets for energy intensity for computer centres (which covers all energy consumed in buildings or parts thereof containing separately metered computer centres).

The Department of Finance and Deregulation published a "Better Practice Checklist: Managing the environmental impact of information and communications technology (ICT)" in December 2007, which is intended to raise awareness of the impact that government ICT resources have on the environment. It provides information and acts as a guide to agency staff responsible for managing ICT products and services. Questions in the checklist include:

  • prompts to include the environmental impact of ICT products and services in procurement plans
  • allocation of key resources for management of the environmental impacts of ICT products and services
  • policies and practices to encourage good environmental awareness and practice in the use of ICT; and
  • disposal strategies for ICT products and services no longer required.

The Department of Climate Change is also in the process of finalising its policy in relation to carbon reduction, which will also impact on DEWHA's ICT sustainability policy.

So what does this mean for your agency?

No whole-of-government ICT sustainability plan has been released since the Government confirmed that it will implement the Gershon recommendations in full. However, there is a committee run out of DEWHA that is considering these issues. It is likely that the whole-of-government sustainability policy will tie in with the existing Greening of Government policies and recommend, or require, agencies to implement initiatives such as:

  • automatic PC fleet shut-down. This was implemented by the Department of Defence in June 2008 and resulted in dramatic electricity cost savings, as well as a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • improved printing capability, usage and recycling of paper
  • utilisation of energy performance standards for industry, such as the energy efficiency star rating system for monitors and desktop computers
  • obligations to include energy saving requirements in procurement documentation
  • using energy calculators to measure and then be able to control usage
  • implementing virtualisation and consolidation technologies to maximise resources
  • adopting mobile computing platforms and work practices
  • processes for the safe and secure destruction of ICT goods and services, including use of hazardous substances in delivering goods and services; and
  • adopting co-ordinated or shared delivery models for applications, operation systems and data.

Gershon noted that a useful tool in establishing such measures is the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT is an environmental standard and rating system that makes it easier for computer purchasers to buy high performance computers, laptops, and monitors that meet stringent environmental criteria. EPEAT was developed over a three-year period with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Gershon notes that the US Government's purchase of EPEAT registered computers will save millions of dollars in energy costs, create a significant reduction in energy use as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not clear, however, where the Government will draw the line between spending money to achieve its ICT sustainability policy, and its overall goal of cutting ICT costs (which, in the UK Gershon review, included procuring "generic brands", irrespective of their ability to meet any sustainability policy). This will impact on how agencies implement other Gershon recommendations, including the recommendation in relation to data centres. We note, however, that there is currently a freeze on major upgrades and replacement of existing data centres until various Gershon-related whole-of-government policies have been finalised. The Government will need to carefully consider the impact of this freeze, including its anticipated duration, in the context of the implementation of the sustainability recommendation. While savings have been emphasised, some of the recommendations will involve initial expenditure to implement.

An added complication is that agencies will need to be able to monitor and manage their energy consumption and the cost of that consumption. As noted above, the majority of agencies could not provide meaningful or consistent responses to Gershon recommendation survey questions in relation to sustainability. Going forward, this will require agencies to develop processes and procedures to audit their ICT energy use. A difficulty in this regard, however, is that meaningful comparative information about the performance of PCs in use is not readily available. Each agency's internal ICT sustainability processes and procedures will be required to feed into the whole-of-government sustainability policy, which will require common metrics and measures for assessing energy consumption, and the cost of that consumption (this ties in to another Gershon recommendation in relation to developing common metrics for monitoring the effectiveness of ICT investments).

In addition, the ICT sustainability plan will need to consider how, if at all, the carbon footprint reduction goal impacts on other policies, such as record-keeping. At present, not all agencies have effective facilities for electronic or digital record-keeping. While some agencies, including the National Archives of Australia, are developing electronic record-keeping facilities (including procedures), we note that there are residual concerns in relation to digital obsolescence, as well as problems verifying authenticity of electronic records.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.