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Greening the Valley, one tech giant at a time

Executives from Cisco, HP, and Sun talk at Fortune conference about how to prevent the tech industry's carbon footprint from growing to 3 percent by 2020.

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--The carbon footprint of the tech industry is estimated at 2 percent of the world's total emissions, or roughly the equivalent of the aviation industry's, according to data from McKinsey & Co.

Technology executives from Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems were here Tuesday talking about how to prevent it from growing to 3 percent by 2020.

The tech industry produces about 800 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalents, including the production of devices and their energy usage after they're sold, according to McKinsey partner James Manyika, who spoke here at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference. With a 6 percent annual growth rate, carbon emissions will hit 1.4 gigatons by 2020, or 3 percent of global emissions, Manyika said.

So what is the tech industry doing about it? Each of the tech executives had a slightly different take on the problem.

One of the biggest things companies can change is the way they work, according to Robert Lloyd, senior vice president of Cisco. "Anything connected to a network needs to be green. How we run our businesses, how we design our products, how we collaborate as industry players," Lloyd said.

Cisco, for example, is emphasizing video conferencing known as "telepresense" to cut down on the amount of travel among its workforce. Its efforts have resulted in a $90 million to $100 million reduction annually in airline travel, he said. It also has a potential rise in productivity.

Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice president of HP's imaging and printing division, said that HP has worked on green innovation since 1987. For example, he said, HP has taken back 1.17 billion pounds of printers and cartridges in that time, and in a sign of the growth of waste, it expects to take back another billion pounds over the next three years. Joshi said HP's next focus is how to help consumers bring down their energy consumption and carbon footprint.

In the next three to four years, he said, HP will reduce energy consumption of PCs by 25 percent and laser jet printers by 40 percent. It's also working on smart-grid turn-off features for its printers. On the data center front, he said that HP Labs is committing to reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 80 percent in the coming years, he said.

McKinsey's Manyika said that much of the carbon-emissions growth is coming from China and the rest of the world--PCs and peripherals accounting for at least half of the energy consumption. The fastest-growing piece of that pie is from data centers, Manyika said. But he said, technology can also be used to improve the efficiency of the industry and other markets. A smart grid, for example, could help people understand how much energy they're consuming and turn off devices when not in use.

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said that we're operating in an industry that doubles its efficiency every one or two years, but people end up consuming twice as much. He said data centers, for example, are social utilities, and people's demand drives that usage. So he said that much of the problem is about changing people's behaviors, and the focus should fall more on the price of inefficiency.

Sun itself has invested $2 billion on research and development targeting efficiency, Schwartz said. The company also publishes data on the efficiency of its systems.

"The shift will require changes in society (not just this industry)," he said.

"The more transparent we are as an industry and the more we guide consumers to be transparent, the better off we'll be," said Schwartz.