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Tackling the CO2 consequences of high-tech

perspective Sun's David Douglas says the computer industry should take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

perspective California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation recently aiming to lower the state's greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

According to the governor, California is the 12th-largest emitter of carbon in the world despite a history of strong environmental legislation.

Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere and keep heat from the sun from escaping into space. While some greenhouse gases such as water vapor are natural, others, such as carbon dioxide, are the result of human activity. Burning a gallon of gas in an automobile, for instance, generates about 19 pounds of carbon dioxide, while generating electricity from coal is around 2 pounds per kilowatt-hour.

Because computers and networking are electricity-intensive, and because most electricity generation results in CO2 emissions, carbon dioxide is of special interest to computing companies. Every search you do on the Web, every bid on eBay and every e-mail you send is creating a small addition to our CO2 emissions.

It is widely recognized that we need to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions, with a special focus on carbon dioxide. From a corporate perspective, there are two types of programs for lowering carbon dioxide: those that are mandated by government, and those that are embarked upon voluntarily.

Your company and the planet will both benefit from any CO2 emissions programs that you can achieve today.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty signed by more than 160 countries and organizations, in which its signatories agree to meet certain greenhouse gas emissions reductions. In the U.S., which has not signed the Kyoto Protocol, legislation to drive emissions reductions is taking place mostly at a state level, as in the California legislation.

Many governments are also implementing market-based systems for greenhouse gas emissions. Under these systems, emissions credits are awarded by the governing body. Emissions credits give an organization the right to emit a certain amount of a substance, and can be bought or sold in markets by companies that have too many or too few. Reductions are achieved by reducing the amount of credits given each year. Probably the most successful system was a sulfur-trading system that was put into place in the U.S. in 1990, and which is credited with dramatically reducing the problem of acid rain in the country.

In addition to government-driven initiatives, many companies around the world are voluntarily agreeing to reduce their emissions. For example, as a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Leaders initiative, Sun Microsystems has agreed by 2012 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2002 levels.

With shifting regulations and a wide variety of market and voluntary schemes, it can be difficult to know whether to wait or take some kind of action now. In this case, the simplest advice is probably the best: Your company and the planet will both benefit from any CO2 emissions programs that you can achieve today. And one place for many companies to start looking is their energy-intensive datacenters.

Here are a few steps to get you started: First, understand where your data center electricity comes from and where it all goes. Your power bill will tell you how much power you use, and your utility can tell you how much CO2 is emitted per kilowatt-hour.

Next, figure out where it goes. Many people are surprised when they learn that less than half of the power is actually getting to the computers; it is common for air conditioning and power distribution to be a major loss of electricity. Once you understand where your power is going, it will be clear where to start your efforts.

One of the simplest tools for lowering server power is to upgrade older servers. Beyond upgrades, server consolidation and technologies such as virtualization are proving to be useful tools in getting more work out of existing systems. Alternative energy can also replace or complement standard grid electricity and result in reduced emissions.

It's important to note that these steps, while reducing emissions, will also lower your power bill. While these steps won't eliminate your electrical usage and resulting greenhouse gas emissions, you'll have a much better handle on where you are, you'll have experience with reduction programs, and you can save yourself some money in the process.